Suns-Mavericks series preview, Pt. 2: Can Dallas stop Deandre Ayton?

May 1, 2022, 12:00 PM | Updated: 3:15 pm
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on...
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on December 23, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Thunder 113-101. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns advanced in the playoffs and will now take on the Dallas Mavericks in the second round.

As usual, Empire of the Suns will take you through the biggest keys to the series. After beginning with how well Phoenix defends Luka Doncic, let’s talk about his fellow draftmate Deandre Ayton.

PHOENIX — The first round couldn’t have gone much better for the Dallas Mavericks when it came to the matchup.

The Mavericks, emphasizing small five-out lineups with shooters and spacing around Luka Doncic, were given a Utah Jazz defense with bad on-ball defenders and a center in Rudy Gobert who 1) couldn’t keep up with the perimeter diversity of Dallas and 2) couldn’t offset that by punishing the Mavericks offensively.

Dallas was without Doncic for the series’ first three games and still took down Utah in six games.

I bring that up because much like the New Orleans Pelicans, it’s fair to say we don’t know how good this Mavericks squad really is. That offensive philosophy is now possible because center Kristaps Porzingis was shipped to Washington for another initiator of offense (Spencer Dinwiddie) and shooter (Davis Bertans).

First-year head coach Jason Kidd spent the first few months of the season building up a defense that finished seventh in defensive rating. But in the 25 games since the trade, the Mavericks lost that a bit and were 16th while the offense jumped to eighth, per NBA.com.

Like I said, not sure. From the perspective of how it looks against the Phoenix Suns, they aren’t sure, either. They haven’t played Dallas since the trade.

Head coach Monty Williams said while the Suns will still take some things from playing the Mavericks prior to the deal, it’s almost a different team in a different season. And as he pointed out, the Suns aren’t really like the Jazz, so that film from the first round isn’t going to hold a ton of answers.

“I think we just have to wait and see, and that’s why going into the first game you really have to rely on who you are as a team,” Williams said Saturday. “And then once you get an idea in the first half, I think you can maybe before make the adjustments based on what you’re seeing on the floor.”

As covered in part one, I think the Suns have as good of a shot as any team in making Doncic mortal. Let’s say for the sake of saying and the fact that I am an idiot sometimes that it turns out to be more of an uphill battle than expected keeping Doncic from looking like an avenger.

Then the series becomes about this question: Is Dallas’ defense good enough to contain what the Suns do in order for its offense to win the series?

Ultimately, that may come down to center Deandre Ayton.

The Mavericks’ center rotation consists of Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber. Both would have been power forwards 10 years ago but it’s not 10 years ago. Dallas will even roll without either of them for small stretches.

Both of them have no shot defending Ayton 1-on-1.

The troubling development for the Mavericks is that Ayton is coming off the best offensive stretch of his career in the series against New Orleans.

Ayton was playing with aggression and confidence in his individual offensive game, using his dribble consistently in ways we’ve been talking about in this space since he was drafted and I proposed taking some inspiration from Amar’e Stoudemire.

The 23-year-old looked like a future No. 1 option, averaging over 20 points per game and keeping the Suns alive across various patches of the series where they needed a singlehanded performance to prop them up.

Watch at 55 seconds for the reaction from Devin Booker on the bench.

First one out of his seat. Huge and-one right arm movement outta Williams too!

It was cool to hear Ayton talk about that part of his game because he corrected himself mid-answer as if to say, nah, I am this guy now.

“This year everything is a green light for me when I have the ball in my hands,” he said. “I feel like I can do anything with it. Knowing how teams guard me and what to expect and where my teammates are at. I’m starting to be way more comfortable to where I can make the play or I can be the playmaker when I have the ball.

“Definitely with all the spins and using the dribble and using my size I’m definitely starting to get in rhythm. Not starting. I am in rhythm with all of that now to where I know where my strengths are at completely.”

Ayton told us after his 28-point performance in New Orleans that Booker was repeatedly telling Ayton “score the ball, score the ball” over and over again. Ayton’s coaches and teammates constantly say how unselfish he plays and he’s found the mentality he needs to dominate offensively.

That has come with time and growth, elements the group has had with Ayton as well.

Ever since Ayton’s arrival in Phoenix, there has been the tug and pull of Ayton making himself available for the ball in the right ways, his teammates realizing when he is doing so and them getting him the ball when that’s the case.

Williams elaborated on how that process has come to fruition this year.

“I think it’s more the guys around him that are looking for him when a situation happens,” he said Saturday.

“I think we’re much better at finding him as a team,” he added. “Our first year, I’m not quite sure he was ready for that. And two, we weren’t ready. We didn’t take advantage of it when teams would put a smaller guy on him. Now I think there’s some synergy there. The guys who have the ball look for it but then he’s so much better at sealing and wanting the ball and being big.”

Ayton’s draftmate, teammate and fellow “triplet” Mikal Bridges saw it starting to click for Ayton when that trust expanded in a Feb. 2020 matchup against the ultra-small Houston Rockets.

“We was just dominating ’em just throwing the ball in,” Bridges said. “I’m like, ‘DA, if they wanna go small, we’re just gonna abuse it.’ And that was the time [Houston] was running it and they was beating teams. I’m like, ‘Listen, they got a smaller guy. There’s no way they’re gonna beat us.’ And we just throw it into DA and DA goes (and) scores every time.

“And I remember that moment, I was just like, ‘Alright, he knows if there’s a smaller team, I will dominate ’em.’ That’s why it’s good to see when we play teams throughout the regular year and they go small, especially defensively, I’m just like, ‘Alright, if that’s what you want, we’re gonna feed him and he’s gonna dominate down there.'”

This has been a crucial improvement in the Suns’ offense because it allows them to maximize Ayton’s value and make teams pay for playing smaller lineups while switching defensively.

Ayton was tremendous against these looks in last year’s Western Conference Finals versus the Los Angeles Clippers, proving he cannot be played off the floor like so many centers (*cough* Gobert) once the real basketball starts.

He embraces it too and knows it’s coming against Dallas.

“Oh yeah. I love it,” Ayton said Saturday. “Guess that’s the similarity in the league where 6-foot-7 dudes are 5s now so they try to cancel out the traditional big man role but at the end of the day if it ain’t broke don’t fix it and our stuff over here ain’t broke. We stay true to our culture and we try to punish matchups just like how they try to punish bigs on the perimeter so it’s just how the game goes. Gotta stay in front of your man and make sure you just finish strong around the rim.”

Ayton deserves more credit for how smart of a basketball player he is. When he played against DeAndre Jordan earlier in his career, Ayton noticed that Jordan knew just about everything about what the Suns were trying to do.

Ayton has taken it upon himself to use that type of knowledge to his advantage offensively, picking up on the opposition’s vernacular of their defensive coverages so he’s a few steps ahead with how the defense is defending his ball screen.

As expected, he brought it up both in how he can help Chris Paul and Booker get open but also himself. Again, not a selfish player.

Dallas, rightfully so, will be concerned with how to stop Paul and Booker first. But Ayton, someone who will be high on the Mavericks’ scouting report as well, is the one who is in the best position to really dictate this series.

If we see the Ayton we did from the last two weeks, he’s going to do just that.

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Suns-Mavericks series preview, Pt. 2: Can Dallas stop Deandre Ayton?