EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Deandre Ayton lifts Phoenix Suns past undermanned Pistons

Nov 25, 2022, 10:55 PM
Detroit Pistons' Isaiah Livers (12 ) defends against Phoenix Suns' Deandre Ayton (22) during the fi...

Detroit Pistons' Isaiah Livers (12 ) defends against Phoenix Suns' Deandre Ayton (22) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Phoenix, Friday, Nov. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

(AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

PHOENIX — It was a night with a handful of uncharacteristic instances for the Phoenix Suns that almost brewed up a huge upset. But they were still able to get by an undermanned Detroit Pistons team, 108-102.

The Suns didn’t knock down 14 of their first 15 attempts from 3-point range. Mikal Bridges failed to convert on his first nine shot attempts and Devin Booker had more than three missed free throws for the first time in 231 games, per Stathead.

All of that required one heck of a constant to get a win, and it was a season-high 28 points on 11-of-13 shooting in 30 minutes for Deandre Ayton. His 12 rebounds made it his first 20-point, 10-rebound game as well.

“I just think he took advantage of the situation,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said of Ayton. “He was catching it in his sweet spot and making some shots.”

Ayton had 10 of those points in the first quarter and was engaged from the jump. His pressure, along with Cam Payne’s via 16 points and 10 assists, was just enough for the Suns offense.

“I was finding the pocket,” Payne said of getting Ayton the ball. “That was one thing we talked about earlier this morning was find the pocket, find the big and he gave me 10 assists tonight.”

That consistent motion was the heart of it.

“Just running our plays with pace as well, not doing that regular NBA trot thing you normally see,” Ayton said. “Running it with urgency and just making the play for your teammates. Because in our plays, you don’t know who is going to get the ball. Every movement is live.”

And with Payne’s speed and playmaking, that’s lethal.

“When he does that, it just adds another weapon to our team,” Williams said of the way Payne distributed. “I thought tonight, the times when he went to score, those plays were called to pass to DA or to the shooters on the back side but he saw an opening and he took advantage of it. I think that’s the balance we want him to have.”

Detroit, a young team projected to be among the worst in the league, was severely shorthanded. It was without Saddiq Bey (right ankle sprain), Cade Cunningham (left shin soreness), Jaden Ivey (right knee soreness), Cory Joseph (non-COVID illness) and Isaiah Stewart (right great toe sprain).

The missing top-end talent is what makes the Pistons a team to watch over the next two years in terms of how it comes together.

Cunningham, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, is the star and offensive hub. The 23-year-old Bey averaged 16.1 points per game last season and Ivey, a top-five pick, is a rookie worth the price of admission. Stewart, 21, has been the starting center since the beginning of last season as well.

That made Bojan Bogdanovic the lone Pistons starter remaining from opening night.

While the Suns had their own key pieces out in Chris Paul (right heel soreness), Cam Johnson (right meniscus tear), Landry Shamet (concussion protocol) and Jae Crowder (not with team), it does not compare to that, especially as a contender compared to an inexperienced group.

Regardless, there’s a reason they still toss that ball up and play four quarters.

At halftime, the Suns’ supporting cast outside of Ayton, Booker and Payne had shot a combined 4-of-27 (14.8%).

It was the type of detached and (at times) lethargic effort you could have seen coming the day after Thanksgiving on the first game of a back-to-back, with a much-awaited rematch against the Utah Jazz coming on Saturday.

Despite this, Phoenix was only down by one at the half, 54-53.

In the second half, the Suns went on three different runs of 8-2, 9-0 and 11-4 to create separation. Each time, however, the Pistons came crawling back, surprisingly landing the game in clutch minutes. That included a third quarter in which the Pistons had eight offensive rebounds produce 12 second-chance points.

At that point with under five minutes to go, it just felt like the Suns were trying to work through the funk they were in to still manage a win.

That’s where Detroit was falling apart with bad shots and even worse turnovers, the lack of a poise that’s impossible to expect the Pistons to have right now without so many important players.

A putback tip dunk by Ayton with 1:34 left put the Suns up five and that was enough of a cushion the rest of the way.

It was good to see Bridges strong-headed when shots weren’t falling, as he made his next five attempts after missing the first nine to finish with 15 points. There wasn’t any sense of hesitation in his play over that stretch, which is progress.

“I’m just glad he kept taking them,” Williams said of Bridges. “I think earlier in his career, if he would have had a night like that, he would have been a bit shy and we just don’t encourage that.”

Booker added 21 points.

Friday marked the third straight game veteran center Bismack Biyombo has played as Ayton’s backup over Jock Landale. Landale won the job in training camp and had been playing really well. While his 3-point shot sits at 3-for-26 (11.5%), Landale doesn’t need 3s to go down in order to be effective, as he has proven this season.

Biyombo has been as solid as ever, especially defensively, and perhaps that’s just the balance Williams wants right now given the injuries elsewhere. Williams confirmed it was not based on matchups and said he likes Biyombo’s pressure on the rim.

Twenty-six free throw attempts for the Suns helped mitigate some of the below average offensive play. They made 17 of them (65.4%).

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