EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Deandre Ayton dominates again, Phoenix Suns beat Utah Jazz

Nov 26, 2022, 11:35 PM
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) shoots over Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen during the sec...

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) shoots over Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen during the second half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, in Phoenix. The Suns won 113-112. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

PHOENIX — An 82-game season will present ups and downs to every NBA player. It will humble them quickly if they think otherwise.

For Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton, they have been some extreme highs and lows through four-plus seasons.

After a two-week stretch when Ayton’s contributions were few and far between, he absolutely dominated a home back-to-back this holiday weekend, and both efforts were the No. 1 reason the Suns won the ball game.

Saturday’s, a 113-112 victory over the Utah Jazz, was one of his best games as a Sun through monstrous season highs of 29 points and 21 rebounds after 28 and 12 on Friday.

“I don’t know what he ate for Thanksgiving but I wish I went over there,” guard Devin Booker joked in regards to Ayton.

It ended with the assertion everyone wants to consistently see out of Ayton and with the ball in his hands by force.

The Jazz, down three with 26 seconds left, elected not to foul after guard Jordan Clarkson knocked down two free throws to make it a one-point game. Utah had a timeout left and the Suns actually fouled Clarkson intentionally, an early trigger of the foul-up-three game, something head coach Monty Williams has always been OK with doing sooner than most would.

A two-second difference, though, is playing with fire, and the result showed why. Phoenix got up a bad shot off a broken play, a heave from Booker on the left wing 28 feet out, but the shot clock went out as the ball hit the rim. That wasn’t enough time even if the Jazz got the ball.

But they didn’t. Ayton did.

His ninth and final offensive rebound of the game sealed it. Six of them were grabbed in the fourth quarter.

In a wonky game absent of flow, the Suns finally found the haymaker both teams were searching for. A 7-0 run with just under six minutes left felt awfully like the wear-down effect we’ve come to know from these Suns teams. The Jazz, however, were incredibly resilient and nearly got another very impressive win over the Suns on the second game of a road back-to-back.

Jazz head coach Will Hardy would later clarify after the game he did want to foul in the closing moments. The plan was to trap Booker to get him off the ball, which is what happened, but no one fouled for the handful of seconds after that and then the ball found Booker again as the shot clock was winding down. Hardy unprompted to begin his postgame presser took full responsibility for the lack of communication.

Ayton had a season-high nine free throw attempts, the third-most he’s had in a game for his career and highest total since January 2020. It is now 21 free throw attempts for him in his last four games after 22 across his opening 13 appearances.

That juxtaposition paints the perfect picture of what we started on.

Ayton understands how important it is for him to be the version we are seeing now, as he has said in the past.

“I’m the main guy who has to be ready to play every night,” he said Saturday. “I cannot be that guy who is easing into games. For this team, I have to be that energizer, that dude who making them plays, who’s on the glass, who’s dunking on the ball, who’s getting the crowd in it, setting the hard screens, setting the tone of the physicality, moving people out the way — I’m the tone setter.

“And when I do that, my team follows and everything falls into place and we play Suns basketball the right way.”

We have seen stretches like this before. There was the “DominAyton” four-game spurt two regular seasons ago when the physicality seemed like it was finally clicking. That was before a postseason he was phenomenal in.

The point is sustaining it consistently, and if he does that, he’s a sure-fire All-Star.

“He’ll say something to you guys about how I’m on him all the time but this is why,” Williams said. “You know what guys are capable of. They may not be able to do it every night but we have guys that can not just put up numbers but they can put up numbers that allow you to win games. And when you put up monster numbers like that that effectively help you win games, that is a standard.”

Williams shouted out Ayton’s conditioning for putting up that type of performance in 34 minutes on the second game of a back-to-back, noting how much work Ayton puts in at the facility by lifting during “crazy hours.”

The age-old question with Ayton is if he has turned the corner Suns fans have been begging for him to come whipping around at blazing speeds since he was drafted No. 1 overall four years ago. As always, we’ll just to wait and see.

“Not even about the 29 and [21],” Booker said of Ayton. “It’s just the physicality. I think he’s going to realize that’s what comes with it and it’s tough on teams when he’s getting those second-chance opportunities and getting the and-ones and making free throws at the same time. Stellar performance back-to-back nights for him and we’re going to keep it going.”

Booker grinded his way to 27 points on 8-of-27 shooting. He changed his shoes at halftime to try and correct this mojo, a rare move for him.

“Yeah, switch it up,” Booker said. “(Expletive), didn’t work.”

I’m sure many will disagree but I thought he was an overall positive still. He was getting after it defensively while embracing the contact to recover toward the glass, where he snagged 11 rebounds to go with seven assists. He sure doesn’t like losing to the same team twice in a row.

Mikal Bridges was 7-of-10 from the field for 16 points on a night where his midrange game was cooking.

Center Jock Landale and forward Ish Wainright both weren’t in the original batch of subs for Williams in the first quarter but both got time and made huge plays at the start of the fourth quarter that was the precursor to that aforementioned run.

Landale, in particular, only played five minutes (all in the fourth quarter) and the Suns were +7 in ’em. He was terrific in his first real go across the last four games after losing his role to Bismack Biyombo.

“I told him I need your energy,” Ayton said of a conversation he had with Landale before the start of the fourth quarter. “I know when you get in this thing, [you] gonna turn us up. I need that energy. And he had the loudest five minutes I have ever seen. And he turned the whole thing around.”

Phoenix’s defense limited the Jazz to 44 total points in the paint after giving up 18 of them in the first quarter alone.

The Suns grabbed 18 offensive rebounds as a team. Booker had four of them and Torrey Craig picked up three more, continuing the trend we’ve seen to start the season of them letting perimeter players occasionally crash to steal extra possessions here and there.

Jazz star Lauri Markkanen, like Booker, couldn’t follow up his tremendous performance in the first meeting between these two teams. Booker’s 49 in that Suns loss two weeks ago was nearly matched by Markkanen’s 38 but Markkanen shot 4-of-13 with 15 points on Saturday. Phoenix defended Markkanen and other Jazz bigs with guards a lot of the time, which seemed to do the trick in throwing off the rhythm a bit.

The Suns have now won two straight games in clutch minutes after beginning the year 1-4 in those games.

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