EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns-Nuggets preview, Pt.1: Can Deandre Ayton stifle Nikola Jokic again?

Apr 26, 2023, 8:20 AM | Updated: 9:52 am

Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets shoots under coverage by Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Su...

Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets shoots under coverage by Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns in Game Three of the Western Conference second-round playoff series at Ball Arena on June 11, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

A term popularized by strategy in video games is “hard counter.” In a fighting game, for example, there can be a character that has a specific set of skills that makes it a perfect matchup for another character.

We’ve seen this phenomenon in sports before, when a lesser player always has a knack for a specific clash with one of the best. Whatever it is about those two facing off leads to something unexpected, whether it’s the lesser player elevating themselves to that level, taking someone elite down a few pegs or a mix of both.

Two years ago, Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton was the hard counter to Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, the MVP that year. It led to his team sweeping in four games.

Can the Suns benefit from this again? Unlike the second-round showdown in 2021, one in which Jokic had little to no help, this dynamic will likely swing the 2023 version of this series as a whole.

Jokic’s masterful blend of agility and strength with his footwork did not prevent Ayton from, at times, stifling him. Ayton’s similar physical gifts had his chest never drift away from Jokic and his intuitiveness with Jokic’s movements allowed him to consistently contest well.

Jokic was 27-of-64 (42.2%) with Ayton on him in the Western Conference semifinals, per NBA Stats.

To be clear, this was simply Ayton limiting Jokic the best he could, the most you can ask for against a future Hall of Famer, and he did an incredible job. Jokic still averaged 25.0 points, 13.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.3 blocks per game to Ayton’s 14.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 0.5 assists and 0.3 blocks.

In my opinion, Ayton outplayed him when considering the defensive impact. Ayton galloped up and down the floor to wear Jokic out and create opportunities for his teammates, but that’s more subjective, obviously.

Nuggets fans will feel confident saying this was a flash in the pan and that has some merit.

Jokic’s push for his first MVP that season and effort to carry the team even more once Jamal Murray got hurt clearly wore on him. His inadvertent smack of Cam Payne in the face on a frustration foul that got him ejected in Game 4 spoke to him reaching his wit’s end.

Denver’s got a far more balanced roster this time that will give Jokic 1) less of a total burden and 2) more effective teammates to set up off the playmaking that defines his greatness.

Jokic picked up another MVP trophy since then and is a finalist for a third straight.

In the three regular-season matchups since, Jokic shot a much better 21-for-33 (63.6%) when defended by Ayton.

And Ayton is coming off his worst playoff series.

It’s easy to make that claim because of how nearly spotless his record was to this point. Ayton’s only blemishes are the 2021 NBA Finals when he was tasked with guarding Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and last year’s exit against the Dallas Mavericks, a stain on everyone’s resume from that Phoenix team that is never going away.

Outside of that, he was great in his playoff debut versus the Los Angeles Lakers two years back. His outstanding 2021 Western Conference Finals included the Valley-Oop and a Game 4 performance that is one of the all-timers in franchise history. Facing the New Orleans Pelicans in Round 1 last season, Ayton put together his best offensive stretch ever and then there was the Nuggets series a year before.

Across the five games versus the Los Angeles Clippers in Round 1 this year, the big man’s career-long problems of consistent engagement and connectivity around the basket on both ends of the floor persisted in a way it hadn’t before in the postseason. His effort just wasn’t there and it’s mystifying because we know what it looks like when it is.

Basics that should happen every play like hard rolls to the rim, running the floor and rotating over right away to protect the rim or grab a rebound were all missing. On top of that, Ayton’s stellar hands (when he’s all there) kept letting him down with bobbling of the ball that drives fans nuts.

After three straight turnovers to begin the third quarter of Game 4 that all involved him in the play, Ayton’s teammates really got on him in the huddle during the timeout. They had a right to be pissed and to try to snap him out of it. Less than two minutes later, Ayton turned over an outlet pass.

Games 4 and 5 were more encouraging and steps in the right direction, but still not enough considering what is expected out of him.

Both Ayton and the Suns will assuredly go over the film and see the recipe for success against the Nuggets and Jokic from two years ago. The beauty in it is the tape encapsulates everything about Ayton as a whole.

When he does the little stuff that was missing against L.A., it makes an enormous impact. Ayton is truly a game-changer that way, when it’s that simple. And then everything else comes together.

It also forces Jokic to work just as hard with him.

I’m sure that “stellar hands” point on Ayton brought on a head tilt from some, but it’s true. Look at how he used them on the offensive glass and turned some 95-5 balls for Jokic and others into 50-50s he ultimately tracked down.

To re-use some clips from the whole 2021 run that proved he was worth a max contract, Ayton needs to get on his horse off of misses.

For both himself:

And his teammates:

Last offseason when Ayton was a restricted free agent, I wrote that the team signing him would have to accept knowing they would never know what version of Ayton they were going to get on a night-to-night basis. Unfortunately, even with what he has proven to be capable of, he had also proven that’s who he was through four seasons. Year 5 hasn’t moved the needle, either.

That variable is the deciding one in this series. If it’s more like 2021, Denver will once again have no chance. If it’s not, this is much more of a coin flip.

Ayton, to his credit, normally gets up for playing the best of the best at his position. He and Jokic share mutual admiration, and Ayton will be looking forward to getting another crack at this.

I have no idea how Round 2 of this duel is going to turn out, and if you claim to, you’re a fool.

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Suns-Nuggets preview, Pt.1: Can Deandre Ayton stifle Nikola Jokic again?