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Suns want to keep pushing Deandre Ayton after game vs. Grizzlies

Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns attempts a dunk against Xavier Tillman #2 of the Memphis Grizzlies during the first half at FedExForum on January 18, 2021 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images)

Monty Williams took some of the blame for getting a little bit of tunnel vision.

The Phoenix Suns head coach, rightfully so, has been focused on feeling out the balance between his two All-Star caliber backcourt players. He felt like he got away from trying to help the one player who most drastically could swing the team’s potential from solid playoff squad to conference contender.

“I think it’s something I’ve done a poor job of — I’ve been so concerned with Chris (Paul) and (Devin) Book(er) feeling out with each other … I have probably left D.A. out of that mix,” Williams told Arizona Sports’ Bickley & Marotta on Tuesday.

Part of Phoenix’s determination in force-feeding Ayton on Monday in a 108-104 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies was about the situation. Before three games were postponed due to coronavirus contact tracing last week, the Suns had been three-point shooting their way past teams.

And opponents were fine with that. They clogged the paint to stop drives and hoped for Phoenix to miss shots from the perimeter.

The Suns as of Tuesday rank second-to-last in the NBA by averaging 37.5 points in the paint per game. That was a point of emphasis for Williams in resetting to help the Phoenix offense open up with the help of Ayton.

The big man responded well, taking a season-high 14 shots, hitting half of them, and putting up 18 points, 16 rebounds and three assists in the loss. When he wasn’t scoring, some of the dump-downs led to wide open perimeter shots for teammates, including Booker’s second made three during a rare off-night of 5-of-21 shooting.

Most noticeably, Ayton scored with exclamation-point dunks — he dunked on rim-runs, off a post-move spin and by cleaning up a missed shot by a teammate.

“We’ve been on him. I think it’s been some footwork things and him knowing how dominant he can be,” Booker said of Ayton on Tuesday. “I think last night was turning the page for him and noticing what he’s capable of.

“Just finding the space and the roles of being able to catch and finish and throw lobs, not only is that going to open up or make the game easier for him, I think that’s going to give shooters, including myself and Chris, more looks with him being a presence down there. He’s a force. You see teams, they have to double him later in the game once they realize he was using his body and using it well.”

Over the week off since their last game, Phoenix players have be on Ayton to find his aggressive side. His scoring is down 5.3 points per game this year, to 12.9 points.

The Suns are clearly learning their new teammates like Paul and forward Jae Crowder, but Ayton’s lack of aggression before Monday was a concern.

“That’s all he’s been hearing for the past week, is being more ferocious in the paint, from me and his teammates,” Williams said on a Tuesday Zoom call with reporters. “I’m sure he hears it from his friends. If you just look at our bench, when D.A. dunked the ball last night, our bench was ecstatic. There was a bit of elation in that moment.”

Ayton said after the game that Williams revealing the team was last in the league in paint points “opened up my eyes a little bit.” He regretted not punishing switches enough after Memphis frequently put smaller players on his back.

Overall, though, it was a step forward — at least for a game.

The 22-year-old center and 2018 first overall pick admitted his Suns teammates have lately been on him.

That’s unlikely to stop. Williams said the bar has been raised after Monday — the challenge is on Ayton to develop the “mental stamina” to string together full games of aggression as this year continues, the head coach said.

Added Ayton: “I think it looked good, but I could’ve done more.”


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