EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Aggressive Deandre Ayton not enough for Suns to beat Grizzlies

Jan 18, 2021, 7:24 PM | Updated: Jan 19, 2021, 7:27 am
Memphis Grizzlies guard Tim Frazier (12) shoots ahead of Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) in ...

Memphis Grizzlies guard Tim Frazier (12) shoots ahead of Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

(AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

The Phoenix Suns will want to see a trend develop and another fade after Monday’s 108-104 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.

Deandre Ayton showed newfound aggression around the rim, producing five dunks to nearly match his seven total through the first 11 games. The Suns would love to see that continue.

Phoenix’s last three losses now have all been brutal: an overtime defeat to the Detroit Pistons, a blowout at the hands of the Washington Wizards and a very winnable game on Monday. The Suns would love to see that not continue.

We will start with the big fella.

When you think of “Dominayton,” naturally you go first to those games where Ayton, well, dominates. Posting 30 points and 20 rebounds. Nights like that.

But games like Monday’s are just as important as those because Ayton’s aggression offset some of his deficiencies elsewhere.

Ayton got the most post touches he’s had in a game thus far, to mixed results. That was in an effort to capitalize on the Grizzlies starting rookie second-round pick Xavier Tillman.

Ayton was going to the jumper a bit, oftentimes while moving away from the basket through his footwork.

One possession in the third quarter, though, sent shockwaves through the Valley.

The peak levels of force Ayton played with on a few possessions is something we haven’t seen before. When Ayton is moving and gets his feet under him, he can elevate and explode.

“That’s how he has to play,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “He’s capable of doing that every night … For him to play like that — they threw a number of defenses at him tonight and he still played with a great level of force. Dunking the ball, being aggressive at the rim — that’s how he’s got to play every night … He was awesome tonight.”

In the Wizards loss, Ayton had a notable play where he hesitated and just took a midrange jumper despite being presented loads of space at the top of the key.

It was quite the contrast to how he took advantage of it against Memphis.

After a heavy wave of criticism over the week the Suns spent not playing, Ayton had 18 points, 16 rebounds, three assists, a block and three turnovers on 7-of-14 shooting. The missed shots and turnovers get erased by his mentality on certain plays, adding up to one of his best games overall on the year. The Suns will absolutely take the inconsistencies through four quarters if those highs are still reached as much as they were on Monday.

“Imma keep challenging him to be that,” Suns guard Chris Paul said. “Everybody on our team is so hard on him because we know what he’s capable of. To be one of the greats in your league, you just have to have consistency, and he’s more than capable of it.”

As for the loss, it’s time to put the rare one on Devin Booker.

He shot 5-of-21 from the field, missing three straight shots in crunch time and blowing a defensive assignment late that all would have nearly made up for his poor performance.

That defensive miscue was leaving Memphis’ Grayson Allen, a great shooter, alone in the corner during a tie game with under a minute to go, a play Williams described as “a microcosm of the whole night.”

Booker or Paul being able to essentially steal a back-and-forth mucky game like Monday’s is part of the value in having All-Stars over the course of the regular season. The largest deficit of the game in the second half was eight points and Phoenix was up three with 6:33 to go when Booker checked in.

The 24-year-old was on his way to shutting the door on Memphis, scoring a bucket, assisting a Cam Payne three and then setting up two open 3s out of the Suns’ next three possessions. Both were misses, so instead of the Suns being up 10, it was four.

At a 98-96 lead with 2:15 to go, Booker had a touch shot go in-and-out, missed a dunk and then failed to convert a three-pointer.

Allen’s conversion at the 1:09 mark made it a three-point Grizzlies advantage they’d ride out to a win.

Booker has not played up to the high standard he deserves to be held at nearly all season.

He carried, and I mean carried the Suns in the darkest of times. And even in games when he played badly, those losses weren’t always on him. It’s perplexing to see him so out of sorts, clearly pressing in the first quarter and screwing up the basics he almost never does.

Eventually, that’s on him 12 games into the season, but Booker has always been a rhythm-based player. That’s why we saw him at his best in the bubble. The Suns were achieving peak cohesion as a team and it allowed him to blossom.

Even after Williams inserted Cam Johnson for Jae Crowder in the starting lineup on Monday, the offense still hasn’t clicked.

“I’m more concerned with what we do in the flow of our offense,” Williams said of Booker’s off-night shooting. “I don’t think we have the ball movement and body movement.”

The Suns (7-5) had 30 assists, shot 45.5% and made 15 three-pointers. That sounds like a solid offensive night, but Phoenix failed to score 30 points in any of the four quarters. The 18 turnovers didn’t help.

The offense is able to find spurts of playing the right way, as Williams mentioned. The problem has been consistent flow. The Suns forced the ball to Ayton too many times against the Grizzlies (7-6), taking them out of their offense. In a strange twist, their ability to scramble and make quick passes out of those looks was great, particularly in the second half.

Williams mentioned the Suns “finally” figuring out how to beat the Grizzlies’ switching, as multiple defenses and in-game tweaks continue to bother the Suns.

“We just haven’t figured out how to play our style consistently,” Williams said. “We see it spurts, but we haven’t seen it for long periods of time.”

That’s where Paul has been a master his entire career, playing the role of puppeteer to control a game. But on top of his chemistry with Booker not getting there yet, it hasn’t with the team as a whole, either.

“I think that’s probably most definitely the part for me,” Paul said on the team’s lack of rhythm offensively. “That’s my responsibility. Six turnovers, that shouldn’t happen, but I gotta make sure we’re getting quality shots down the stretch.”

That’s a turnover mark Paul’s reached only eight times in the past three seasons.

The shot balance was more where you’d prefer it, with Booker at 21, Ayton taking 14 and Paul registering 13. That was a happy accident of sorts, however, if anything.

Paul still played well for stretches, scoring 16 points with seven assists and three steals. Like Booker, though, he hasn’t reached that All-NBA level we’re accustomed to seeing from him.

“It’s a feeling out process,” Williams said of Paul and Booker together. “From a coach’s standpoint, I need them both to just be themselves. I think sometimes Chris looks to get everybody involved. He’s looking to get DA a touch, looking to get Book a touch when he just has to play within the flow of our offense.”

After the Wizards’ COVID-19 outbreak forced the Suns to postpone their next three games, the loss was Phoenix’s first game in a week. Williams said a few times that played a factor while also noting what they did wrong to lose the game.

But to go back to trends, the season-long story for the Suns has been their ineffectiveness offensively being bad enough some nights to cancel out their high energy and strong defensive performances.

This could easily be a 10-2 basketball team with even just a pinch of more offensive gusto, but they don’t have it right now. They needed to find it before losses continued to stack up. They haven’t, and now they’ve dropped three of four in frustrating fashion.

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