Forceful, focused Deandre Ayton powers Suns to great win over Heat

Mar 23, 2021, 8:47 PM | Updated: 8:54 pm
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton, left, fouls Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent during the second half...

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton, left, fouls Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent during the second half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Miami. (AP Photo/Jim Rassol)

(AP Photo/Jim Rassol)

Wins for the Phoenix Suns like Tuesday’s 110-100 final over the Miami Heat are what the team could use more of.

They were tested by a good team on the road, with Miami (22-22) delivering a counter strike in the late third quarter after the Suns (29-13) played an awesome 14-minute stretch from the mid-second quarter to the late third that had them up by as many as 22.

Phoenix only led by 12 at one point in the early fourth quarter when that hit came, and a combination of the second unit and Deandre Ayton had to stabilize.

They did, and that was all Miami had in ’em. The Suns have displayed a great trait in a handful of wins over good teams where they keep taking hits on the chin, and then by the fourth quarter, there are no more shots left to throw for the opposition. That wear-down effect is the quality of a tough, tough team.

Ayton had one of his best games of the season, and for the first time in over a month, had a type of two-way impact that is nothing but encouraging.

“His pick-and-roll coverage was really, really good,” head coach Monty Williams said of Ayton’s defense. “His attention at the rim to not foul, to get his hands up and make it difficult … those are dominant performances. I just thought his focus was at a high level.”

Ayton finished with 17 points, 16 rebounds, three assists and three blocks.

“When he plays with that kind of force and focus, it gives us a chance to be that type of defensive team you saw tonight,” Williams said.

Devin Booker had his mojo offensively and converted on some tough shots to log 23 points.

Four of the Suns’ five starters were at least plus-19, a big-time development given the surprising struggles of the season-opening lineup to consistently outscore opponents. Phoenix had 29 assists to seven turnovers.

The Suns held star Heat guard Jimmy Butler to 14 points on 11 shots, not letting one of the world’s best get to the foul line after he averaged over eight free throws a night in his last 10 games. Williams said avoiding fouls at the rim was part of the gameplan. Butler also had five turnovers.

Williams was able to play Booker, Chris Paul and Jae Crowder all under 30 minutes with a game in Orlando on Wednesday, while Ayton and Mikal Bridges played 34 each.

In a close game through a quarter-and-a-half, there was a swing in the mid-second where that aforementioned Suns surge came from.

If you watched or listened, you may have missed the specific play to attribute it to.

Williams said after a recent home game that Paul has a combination of feel and instincts for steals that he’s never seen before.

Paul, almost like a basketball spirit from afar on some butterfly effect-type shenanigans, will often influence and redirect a game’s flow with one or two plays that you could only imagine him making. In the moment, it looks like just a heady play. But then looking back on it, it can prove to be a turning point sometimes.

Heat rookie Precious Achiuwa fell off-balance and missed a bunny after Paul’s swipe here in the mid-second quarter with the Suns ahead by three, and Paul grabbed the rebound after.

Paul kicked ahead off that rebound for an eventual lob to Booker and then set up Bridges for free throws with a filthy behind-the-back feed the next time down.

The Suns closed the first half on a 16-4 run after that initial shot by Achiuwa that would have put Miami within a point.

Would it have happened without that swipe and next two passes by Paul? Maybe. But it’s one of those things that’s been a pleasure to pick up on from watching Paul every night that’s a testament to his all-time status as a point guard.

Sometimes it’s a lot more than the box score would suggest on an eight-point, nine-assist night.

Most of that awesome spurt had to do with the big fella.

Part of why Ayton’s been such a confusing young player to watch this year is not just because he’s inconsistent. Sure, the source of his inconsistency is a mystery, but inconsistent players can still be fairly easy to figure out.

Ayton has not been the case this season, as his performances have been more erratic shift-to-shift in a game and his mistakes are, at times, abhorrent. He sometimes has looked like a rookie in his first couple of weeks adjusting to the NBA. It is bizarre.

The player that we saw on Tuesday, though, was back on schedule with last season. When Ayton brought activity on the offensive glass and got the ball early, that would usually get him going more often than not. That was the case against the Heat.

With Miami heavily switching, the Suns tried to get Ayton involved from the jump. And in perhaps the best development of the entire evening for him, it didn’t go well early. He was blocked by Butler on his first shot, missed the second and Butler pulled the chair on Ayton in the third attempt to make him travel.

Instead of Ayton snowballing, he kept trying to earn post position and eventually it paid off. He made his next three shots.

From there, he remained a presence rebounding and rolling to the basket while doing his job defensively.

And when it goes beyond “doing his job defensively” to truly impacting most possessions, that’s when he’s playing tremendous basketball.

The third quarter was one of the best shifts of Ayton’s career.

Crowder said that because of the way Ayton moves, they can exploit that as a team to make them a top defensive team because Ayton is not just a one-dimensional defender on ball screens. Crowder said there’s “a feeling” Ayton can get better at with putting himself in the right position, like when to be in certain spots, when to crash the offensive glass, when to run the court and so on.

That feeling came fully together in that shift.

Ayton said a lot of getting in that type of zone is knowing personnel and communicating with his perimeter defenders, something Crowder said they constantly have been emphasizing to Ayton and that he’s improved at.

“All-around defensively, we communicated throughout the whole game, and that’s what brought the intensity and sense of urgency tonight,” Ayton said.

Ayton altered almost every shot at the rim over an eight-minute stretch.

When Ayton came off the floor, the Suns’ lead had ballooned to 22. And after Dario Saric picked up his fifth foul in the early fourth quarter with the Suns’ advantage cut down to 15, Ayton was the starter who came back in with the reserves and made sure the game was in safe hands.

It’s too high of expectations to set given the lows of Ayton’s third year, but if that’s the player the Suns can get in the playoffs, they can go all the way.

“In an ideal world, I actually want even more … For me, I’m never satisfied as far as pushing him because there’s so much there,” Williams said of Ayton.

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