Suns able to recover from Deandre Ayton distraction, handle Thunder
There wasn’t much that was going to stop the Phoenix Suns from the way they were playing in Orlando.
Through consistent high levels of effort and offensive movement, head coach Monty Williams was getting everything he had ever wanted out of his team. And wouldn’t you know it, it brought on a 5-0 start.
Even with the Oklahoma City Thunder missing Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Steven Adams, Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel, the Suns weren’t going to let an obvious letdown/trap game deter them too much from a style that was working.
But an off-the-court distraction that turned into one on the court sure did.
Franchise center Deandre Ayton missed mandatory COVID-19 testing on Sunday, which resulted in him being out of the starting lineup and quite literally the building until the mid-first quarter.
In turn, the Suns looked completely out of sorts in the first quarter, committing eight turnovers to only four assists, failing to make a three-pointer and being outscored 37-23.
Ayton entered the game in the second quarter, and from there, the Suns got back to their brand of basketball. They quickly recovered against a very shorthanded Thunder squad, winning their sixth straight 128-101.
Chris Paul was primarily playing with the Thunder’s second unit, and that group compares to most third-stringers on playoff teams across the league.
Oklahoma City was on the second game of a back-to-back, so the floodgates opening wasn’t exactly shocking. The Suns outscored the Thunder 75-44 in the middle quarters.
Ayton played well when he was out there, with 10 points and six rebounds in 17 minutes.
Who knows where they’d be without Devin Booker, though, and that could be said for the entirety of Orlando.
Booker is playing the best stretch of basketball in his career. His scoring kept Phoenix alive in the early going before it woke up.
He finished with 35 points, five rebounds and four assists in three quarters and 29 minutes of play, a much-needed break for how he’s exerted himself thus far before Tuesday’s matchup with Philadelphia.
But for the second straight game, strong play by the Suns is not the top headline. It’s Ayton.
His 25-game suspension cost the Suns at an improved shot of making the playoffs, and his actions on Sunday could have eviscerated any chance they had left.
The fact that Ayton missed the test following his worst performance of the bubble on Saturday is notable and telling. It’s obvious that he gets it if it was after 35 points and 24 rebounds. It was incredibly irresponsible of Ayton, at the peak of the Suns’ season no less, the second time he has failed his team immediately coming off a high point.
This was a must-win game for Phoenix, and without Aron Baynes again, you can’t blame Williams for getting Ayton in the game as soon as possible. With that in mind, the wonder will percolate if a lack of holding Ayton accountable on the court has any short- or long-term effects on the locker room.
When taking into consideration some of those events since Ayton was picked No. 1 overall in 2018, the parts of his personality that have him jovial and open also make it easier to come to a conclusion of questioning his maturity.
Until Ayton proves otherwise, that will continue.