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‘DominAyton’ makes landfall: Deandre Ayton stars in Suns’ win vs. Rockets

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton, middle, is congratulated by Mikal Bridges (25), Cameron Johnson (23) and Devin Booker (1) after hitting a free throw during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

“He got it. He just gotta, you know, do it.”

A frustrated Chris Paul on Fox Sports Arizona moments after a 109-103 Phoenix Suns win over the Houston Rockets summarized the Deandre Ayton discourse in 10 words.

Paul was perturbed because this was a game the Suns could have cruised in late and they had to really earn it instead, but more on Wednesday’s victory in a bit.

Ayton had 26 points, 17 rebounds, three assists and a career-high five blocks on 11-of-15 shooting. It was arguably the best performance of his career, and it came in a game where Houston’s best player in Christian Wood was his matchup.

“He was a monster for us tonight,” head coach Monty Williams said.

In a game full of runs, Ayton had a stretch that was the first time we have truly seen the “DominAyton” tagline come to fruition. It was in winning time, done on both ends and was effectively the difference in the game.

At a score of 89-84 Phoenix with 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Ayton registered eight points, a rebound and two blocks over 3:33 during a 10-0 Suns run.

Taking the lead from five points to 15 in that type of manner is what stars do to kill off games early and not even allow teams to squeak back into it. That was Ayton’s first time being that star.

Devin Booker’s reaction watching this unfold was probably a lot of Suns fans on their couch.

What Booker had to say about seeing it will receive some nods from those same Suns fans as well.

“I want more,” he said. “I want to see more. And that’s what I told him.”

And the best part is, not much of this was done through post touches. It was Ayton himself taking on the initiative. Six of those 17 rebounds were on the offensive glass. He took four free throws and made them all.

When he had space to create, he used it.

The clamoring for more Ayton post touches never made much sense because this is what he’s capable of already. Doing what he did on Wednesday doesn’t require an offense to run around him on the block, which it didn’t.

A lot of his impact, of course, has to do with what he did on the defensive end.

“It just gives us a lot of juice,” Williams said. “When he was able to block (Victor) Oladipo’s shot on those drives, I thought it just gave our team a ton of energy, to know that we can play aggressive defense and then you got somebody like that behind you that can cover it up.”

Cam Payne broke down what that trust can do for a perimeter defender.

“It’s huge. I feel like the big focus for our team is just having that trust. And tonight man, D.A. cleaned up everything,” he said. “Just to know he’s back there taking care of the dirty work — it’s huge for us.”

Ayton’s always had a great mentality that makes him coachable and a good teammate. That is reflected by the way he answered a question on that trust.

“It’s a lot of responsibility and you have to have consistency every night just to show your teammates that you got their back,” he said. “Trust just ain’t something you give somebody. That responsibility, you have to earn it. On this team, I’m proud to be that anchor. I’m proud to take on that challenge.

“Just be there for my guys. That’s the main thing: I’m there for my brother. That’s all it is for me. That’s the pride and dignity that I have in it. I’m not gonna let that guy beat up on my brother. And I know if I help then my brother got my back.”

It has been an ongoing process for the Suns trying to bring Wednesday’s performance out of their franchise center. Outside of Ayton taking it on himself to do more work in both the film and weight rooms, which Williams mentioned postgame, they’ve been on him.

“It was some minor adjustments that we sat down and looked at together,” Booker said. “And he was open in to listening, and it shows … I think he’s finding that it comes a lot easier with what we talked about.”

“You can make it easier on yourself if you pay attention to the details,” he added.

It’s a unified message across the board. Everyone understands the situation.

The peak reaching a new height in the past two games is all fine and dandy, but as has been the case since Ayton’s rookie year, consistency is the next step for 2018’s No. 1 overall pick.

“The best players in this league, they do it night after night. Not just once every few games,” Paul said. “So we’re gonna keep pushing him.”

“We hope he understands that he can be that kind of player every single night,” Williams said.

THE GAME

Ayton’s performance should be further magnified because there is not much certainty in the Suns coming out with a win if he was his average self. That’s the power in having top-tier talent.

Phoenix continues to have points in games where it feels like they should either be up way more or losing. That is why the Point God was upset.

When asked a question by Fox Sports Arizona’s Kevin Ray saying Paul has to be quite pleased, he started his response with, “Yeah, not really.”

“We supposed to win,” he said. “I still don’t love the way we finish games. It just don’t feel good.”

The Suns led by 12 at halftime despite shooting 78% (!!!!) on their two-point shots. Not a typo. It was a staggering 18-of-23, and all with pretty great defense played by the Suns on the other side of the court. Throw in Booker’s six turnovers and the poor three-point shooting and it should have been an advantage of at least 20 points.

It was not, but sometimes the basketball gods will see to it that order is restored and that the game will balance itself out. That was Phoenix’s 11-2 run to open the third quarter that made it a 20-point margin.

The Suns, however, got sleepy and let it get back down to a five-point game through a 23-5 Rockets spurt after that 74-54 scoreline.

The game stayed close, then that Godzilla Ayton stretch brought it back to a 15-point Suns lead with 7:06 remaining.

Surely that was it, then, for a not so good Houston team missing John Wall?

Nope.

The crunch-time looks for the Suns were mostly a mess.

It got down to a two-point game with 90 seconds left. After Paul missed a bad midrange jumper on an even worse possession, Ayton grabbed the biggest rebound of the night and hit two clutch free throws.

Wood missed a three-pointer, Booker drew and converted two more free throws from there and that was the game.

“It’s a work in progress for sure … Just figuring out who is gonna have the ball in those situations and then being able to go to certain plays that are efficient for us,” Williams said.

The coach went on to mention that the Suns’ 8-of-34 (23.5%) three-point shooting being a smidge better would have not had it come down to crunch time, but it did. And like he said, there’s work to be done in figuring those portions of a game out.

The grinding of the gears in those moments was to be expected given the lack of offensive cohesion for the top unit. Fortunately, they’ve got three guys that can carry them past that offensively if they keep defending the way they do while the growing pains carry on.


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