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Suns praise Deandre Ayton for playoff performances vs. MVP Nikola Jokic

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, right, loses control of the ball as Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton defends during the second half of Game 3 of an NBA second-round playoff series Friday, June 11, 2021, in Denver. Phoenix won 116-102. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic was presented his 2020-21 NBA regular-season MVP trophy prior to Game 3’s tip-off on Friday night.

But it was Suns center Deandre Ayton who was receiving MVP-esque praise from his head coach and teammates following a 116-102 Phoenix win to take a commanding 3-0 series lead.

“Deandre has been playing his [butt] off the whole playoffs,” Suns guard Devin Booker said postgame. “From going to (Los Angeles Lakers forward) Anthony Davis first to Jokic, the MVP of the league — those aren’t easy matchups and we’re proud of him for his growth. We tell him just make it hard on him. He’s going to make some tough shots — that’s what he does.

“Just consistently wear him down throughout the game. He’s so locked into that and I know he has a lot of respect for Jokic. I love when he respects somebody and then goes at him that much more. That’s the mindset that you need to have. He’s been making it tough on him. … Deandre is just taking on the challenge and I’m proud of it.”

Ayton finished the night with a double-double consisting of 10 points and a team-high 15 rebounds.

“DA on the boards,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “For most of the night, you just saw two big hands on the defensive boards go up and get a lot of rebounds where nobody else could go. But he’s done that all year. We really on him, probably too much.”

The third-year center out of Arizona also had two assists, shot 50% from the field (4-of-8) and was a perfect 2-for-2 from the charity stripe in 37 minutes played.

“I can’t say enough about DA and what he does for our team,” Suns point guard Chris Paul said. “He does all the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.

“Those jump shots that I hit toward the end of the game, those don’t happen without him. Setting screens, setting it with pace, the rebounds and all that. He’s so selfless, man. We’re on him a lot, but he’s showing you why he is who he is.”

Ayton may not have had eye-popping numbers offensively, but it was the little things — especially on the defensive end against Jokic — that helped propel the Suns over the Nuggets on Friday night at Ball Arena in the Mile High City.

“DA has played him well,” Williams said. “I think Jokic would say the same thing. A lot of his shots are tough shots. I’m watching from the bench and he’s elevating his shot, putting more arc on it because DA is so long and athletic. So we like the way DA is defending him.”

Jokic finished the night with a 32-point triple-double to go along with 20 rebounds and 10 assists.

However, the Nuggets center required 29 shot attempts to do so.

Jokic went 13-of-29 from the field (44.8%), 1-for-6 from three (16.7%) and 5-of-9 from the free throw line (55.6%).

“We just tell DA all game long just make it tough on [Jokic],” Paul said. “DA’s attention to detail, how he guards, how he boxes out, rebounds, running — we ask so much of him. He can’t do any more than he’s doing.”

The Suns will try to stamp their ticket to the Western Conference Finals with a win in Game 4 on Sunday night.

Tip-off is set for 5 p.m. Catch all the action on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.


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