EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Deandre Ayton has Suns offense run through him, defends LeBron in win

Mar 2, 2019, 11:00 PM
(AP Photo/Matt York)...
(AP Photo/Matt York)
(AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns were never going to run their offense every night through Deandre Ayton this season. That’s not how they wanted to develop their No. 1 pick, as they have brought him along slowly and had him focus on the basics of being a center before spreading his wings.

On Saturday night, though, the Los Angeles Lakers used their usual small-ball lineup featuring forwards LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma as the big men.

That had to make Ayton at least a priority offensively and the Suns took it a step further by running everything through him when they could in a 118-109 win.

Ayton had one of his best overall outings of the season, scoring 26 points on 11 shots with 10 rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block.

The Suns can gameplan the offense around Ayton but it’s also on Ayton’s engagement level to 100 percent be there. So when the big fella gets his first two shots — jumpers — to fall, it’s gonna be a long night for the opposition most of the time.

That activity got him to the free throw line. Prior to the game on Saturday, Ayton had only produced five or more free throw attempts in 10 total games. His career-high on the season was just eight.

By midway through the second quarter, Ayton already reached double digits for the first time in his career and was 10-for-14 on the night.

We’ve sparingly seen this fully unleashed Ayton. In late December, Ayton had 26 points and 18 rebounds against the Brooklyn Nets, a game where his impact on the game dictated his production levels. That was far from “empty stats” or whatever you want to call “those” nights we’ve seen Ayton have.

We saw that same player from that game in Brooklyn on Saturday.

Check him out snagging long rebounds and running the floor.

He was incredibly active, and with his athleticism at his size, that allows him to do things few others can on a basketball court.

That’s the version of Ayton that Devin Booker talked about after the game.

“I always tell him, ‘Man, don’t get comfortable with success. What is it? Sixteen and 10? You’re not a 16 and 10 player. That’s really good, first rookie to ever do it, but that’s not you.

You’re 30 and 20.'”

Defensively, Ayton was on James the majority of the time he was playing. With Rajon Rondo starting, his entire value is with the ball in his hands, so James usually defers to him early on. That allowed Ayton to not have to do much work defending James off the dribble, but instead in ball screens.

In fact, when James saw the opportunity early to isolate against Ayton, he instead handed the ball off to Rondo and set a quick screen to make the inexperienced rookie defend that coverage he has so often struggled with this season. It worked and the Lakers continued to have success doing it.

With that being said, James wasn’t his normal aggressive self off the dribble and Ayton noticed.

“It was fun, it was competitive,” he said. “I wouldn’t say LeBron was really going at me he was just really … I don’t think he was really going at me. I think he could have done a lot more consistently.”

With James’ energy like that for the Lakers, that was a huge edge in favor of the Suns, who were flying around the court all 48 minutes.

Ayton called himself “lucky” and said he looks up to James, especially about his leadership and how he makes his teammates better.

“LeBron is everywhere and I was just really happy,” Ayton said.

“I think it was great,” Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov said of Ayton defending James. “Deandre accepted the challenge, understanding that it’s a key matchup.”

Ayton’s success dominating the game led to Lakers head coach Luke Walton starting center JaVale McGee in the second half.

Kokoskov didn’t budge, though, Ayton kept on defending James while the Suns used physicality and rotations to try and deny McGee free opportunities under the basket.

That didn’t work too well, with McGee scoring 21 points on 10-of-10 shooting and James had 16 assists to go along with his 27 points.

At one point in the fourth quarter, the Suns were up 19. Once again, it was a strong, efficient night offensively combined with enough hustle and not an abundant amount of brainfarts defensively that was a winning formula.

The Suns had a field goal percentage of 51.3 and an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.1.

Inevitably, a Lakers run came to get it down to a one-possesion game with 1:14 left, but James missed some key free throws and the Suns made ’em. Phoenix shot 8-for-8 from the foul line from that point on.

That was only the Suns’ second win in ther last 23 tries against James.

In the bigger picture, the Suns have now been victors in two of their last three games, with Saturday’s coming at home in a great atmosphere.

“We found a way, we came together when they made their runs,” Booker said. “We locked in and got a big win.”

UP NEXT

The Suns are back at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Monday against the Milwaukee Bucks. Tip-off is at 7 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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