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Suns bring it defensively to Bucks, Ayton shines again in 2nd straight win

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) tries to shoot against Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, March 4, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — Every now and then, the Phoenix Suns’ defensive potential shines through. They have too much length and athleticism not to have performances like they did on Monday night against the Milwaukee Bucks.

The problem is those glimpses have been far too rare and defense as a whole has been the team’s defining weakness all season.

Whatever it was about Monday, though, led to the Suns playing some terrific defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo and as a whole team in a 114-105 win.

Deandre Ayton had his best game of the season. He was heavily involved in the job to deny Antetokounmpo, often matching up with him.

The amount of ground Ayton covered defensively, as well as the potential Bucks opportunities in the space the No. 1 pick occupied that he helped deny, were a huge part of the victory. When could you say that for any other Suns win this season?

“I never had a doubt that he’s going to be OK,” head coach Igor Kokoskov said of Ayton’s ability as a defender.

“I really feel very, very good and confident that he’s going to take care of this. I don’t want to be too excited but I want more for him.”

Ayton also had his fair share of help.

“Yeah, I’ll say I heard the guys all night,” Ayton said of the Suns’ communication on defense, noting they were talking to him specifically a lot.

The aforementioned strengths the Suns have athletically have them better-kitted than most teams to at least suppress Antetokounmpo as much as one team can hope to.

Whatever was in the air at Talking Stick Resort Arena had Phoenix doing an outstanding job to make plays on the ball and deny the MVP candidate room.

After guarding LeBron James on Saturday, Ayton once again took the task of defending one of the best players in the league.

Ayton did a great job sticking with Antetokounmpo laterally and going straight up with his hands once the Greek Freak got within five feet of the rim and looked to finish.

After Ayton did well to not leave his feet defending the baseline here, watch how he and Kelly Oubre Jr. suffocate Antetokounmpo on a catch near the basket Antetokounmpo usually scores off.

He can’t even shoot here.

We should briefly pause here and also note that Oubre was sensational. He had 27 points and 13 rebounds, five of which came on the offensive glass. To once again draw attention to the Suns’ energy, they were able to survive on the glass to only a minus-one margin because of 17 offensive rebounds.

Dragan Bender even got in on the action.

Antetokounmpo finished with 21 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and six turnovers.

Ayton was productive as always with 19 points and 12 rebounds, but along with the defensive play, he flashed some things offensively that left you even more impressed.

This is a move few 7-footers can execute.

The two missing elements of Ayton’s game offensively as a rookie center that will come with time have been physicality and dribbling.

Put those two together and he’s going to be an absolute juggernaut.

After being shown the above bucket after the game, Ayton said that’s a move Devin Booker specifically mentioned to him. Booker wants Ayton attacking the basket after keeping the ball on a dribble handoff sequence if the space is in front of him to go.

No dribble here in a clutch moment but making up that space so quickly is the key, and again — physicality. He takes the bump from Antetokounmpo no problem.

The win was remarkable in a variety of ways.

The opening of the game did not bode well for the Suns (14-51), as they allowed 19 Milwaukee (48-16) points in the opening 4:10 of the game.

From that point on for a large portion of the game, though, the Suns’ defense changed the game and the Bucks were missing shots.

Milwaukee scored 51 points over the next 28:44, an excellent accomplishment against the NBA’s third-best offense in efficiency.

Despite that defensive effort, the Suns’ offense collapsed and Phoenix was down 16 at one point in the second quarter.

But because they were defending well, they hung around, and with 6:03 to go, the Suns only trailed by seven.

From there, the Suns went on a 16-4 run that included that Ayton dribble attack.

A humongous corner three by Oubre capped those 16 points with two minutes to go and gave the Suns a three-point lead.

Phoenix was able to answer a Bucks three with a Tyler Johnson floater and the previously shown Ayton rim roll and outstanding finish over Antetokounmpo’s perfect verticality.

That made it a four-point Suns advantage and all it took was defense and free throws to seal a second straight win at home.

The Suns became the first team to beat the Bucks twice, swept the season series and handed Milwaukee its second straight loss of the season for only the first time all year.

But for Phoenix, this is the second time they’ve been able to turn things around. They won five of seven in December and now have won three of four.

With the New York Knicks visiting on Wednesday and plenty more of the season left, it sounds like the Suns have the right attitude to push forward and grow from here.

“Felt like a new season for us,” Booker said. “Me and Kelly were just talking, we were like, ‘The season just started right now.'”

Most importantly, leave it to the guy in Oubre who is set to become a restricted free agent this offseason to see the bigger picture on how the Suns can use this time to really develop as a group.

“At the end of the day this is one season but we’re still all pretty much under 25, 26,” Oubre said. “We have a lot of hope and we have a lot of room to grow and that’s what we try and do each and every day.

“This season is coming to an end but there’s another season coming up so we gotta continue to grow and be ready for that. Just keep getting better.”

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