The pinnacle of Deandre Ayton’s 2021 breakout came in the Western Conference semifinals against the Denver Nuggets when the Phoenix Suns dismantled shorthanded Denver with a 4-0 sweep.
With averages of 14.3 points (64% true shooting) and 10.3 rebounds, Ayton joined Chris Paul in unraveling the Nuggets’ ball-screen coverages and simultaneously helped limit NBA MVP Nikola Jokic to 53% true shooting.
Much has changed since then. The Nuggets have retooled their roster, topped the Western Conference regular-season standings to claim the West’s No. 1 seed and are fully healthy. Ayton hasn’t parlayed his 2020-21 campaign into full-fledged stardom and has regressed to the mercurial play that plagued his first two and a half seasons. Paul is no longer an All-Star-caliber guard who dictates the offense for Phoenix. Complementary wings Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson have been replaced by superstar Kevin Durant to substantially reorient the shape of this Suns squad.
On Saturday, the Nuggets and Suns will begin another Western Conference semifinals matchup. While the context for Ayton may look radically different, both internally and externally, his presence continues to loom large upon the Suns’ title pursuit, just as it has the past two seasons with the Suns first losing in the NBA Finals to the Milwaukee Bucks before falling in the Western Conference semifinals to the Dallas Mavericks a season ago.
Ayton’s fifth NBA campaign after being picked No. 1 overall in the 2018 NBA draft out of Arizona has been a pendulum of fickleness. The inconsistencies that capped off Year 4 have extended into 2022-23. The only time his scoring efficiency has been worse during a regular season in his career was 2019-20. His defensive motor and general attentiveness waned. Stretches of rediscovering his mojo sprouted up, only to hibernate games later.
To start these NBA playoffs, his first-round signature against the Los Angeles Clippers was, in many realms, a fitting snapshot of the year to this point. Early on, reserve center Bismack Biyombo looked like a superior option in the middle. But as the series evolved, Ayton’s attention to detail heightened. He influenced more shots around the rim, was a craftier screener and pulled his weight on the glass – all hallmarks of his 2020-21 blossoming.
All the while, though, Ayton’s play-finishing, a steadfast linchpin of his offensive portfolio, lagged behind and his game log for the series shows it. Ayton averaged 16 points on just 54.1% true shooting, well below his career playoff mark (66.5%) and regular season clip (62.2%). His 53% shooting on field goals against the Clippers was his worst single-series mark in seven career playoff series. Led by Devin Booker’s supernova stretch (37.2 points, 69.7% true shooting) and Durant’s steadiness (28.4 points, 67.7% true shooting), Phoenix cruised to a playoff-leading 122.5 offensive rating.
For all of Booker’s brilliance, however, the Suns should not expect him to generate that level of efficiency on that volume moving forward. He will presumably remain very good. He is an All-NBA stud, but 37 points on 70% true shooting is outrageous, unsustainable production.
The Nuggets are a stiffer test than the Clippers down Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Ayton must elevate his game and frugally punctuate possessions like he’s done the majority of his NBA tenure. He was a highly inefficient play-finisher in Round 1. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Booker and Durant were and are that exceptional. A repeat performance from him in Round 2 likely will matter, particularly because of the Nuggets’ defensive schematics.
When Jokic is on the floor, they often play him at the level of the screen in pick-and-rolls. He touts the swiftest, most dexterous hands in the league among bigs, which enables him to interfere with passing windows, and is much more effective than playing in drop coverage. He’s a ground-bound 5 and a cumbersome rim protector. Allowing him to sit back puts more strain on Denver’s flawed point-of-attack infantry and relies on Jokic to wall off the hoop, a job for which he’s quite unqualified.
Los Angeles generally stationed Ivica Zubac or Mason Plumlee at the level when Booker or Durant piloted ball-screens. That left Ayton to navigate an array of short-roll scenarios. He did not fare well, settling for unthreatening midrange jumpers, firing inaccurate passes or letting his own passivity squander 4-on-3 advantages. The occasional encouraging flash he showcased will have to become the norm.
Against the Nuggets, I expect many more of these chances. With Phoenix’s depth compromised after its acquisition of Durant and the lack of three-point shooting around this star duo, directing the ball elsewhere is an increasingly appealing gambit. The Clippers evidently thought so. Denver showed and trapped Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards, another star scorer surrounded by tepid floor-spacing and questionable offensive cogs, so it’s already exhibited a willingness to follow suit.
Operating as a short-roll playmaker is not a spot Ayton’s typically been thrust into during his career. Teams don’t defend Paul like that these days and Paul is his most common pick-and-roll partner. He’s being asked to learn in real time while facing the No. 1 seed in the second. That is not a simple task, yet nonetheless a necessary one. Such is life as a paramount ancillary player for a team still cultivating an identity amid its championship aspirations.
When Jokic rests these playoffs, Denver is tabbing Aaron Gordon as its small-ball center and running a switch-heavy scheme. The Suns usually staggered Durant and Booker with bench-centric units in the first round. That could mean Ayton isn’t facing the Nuggets’ reserve lineups much.
If he does, though, can he exploit an undersized frontline? Can he resemble the domineering interior scorer we saw in prior playoff battles against the Nuggets, Clippers (2021), Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans? Denver outscored the Minnesota Timberwolves by 28 points during the 60 minutes Jokic sat last round. If Ayton sees the floor in those moments, can he play a hand in curtailing that trend? Jokic is one of the game’s most perplexing covers and brightest superstars. It’s challenging enough to win the minutes he catches a breather, harder still with the minutes he plays. Losing both is a deathknell.
Separate from anything Denver specifically imposes, the Suns need Ayton to play with more force next round. That’s not a new issue. This has plagued him for much of his career, just less prevalently at various junctures. According to Cleaning The Glass, 67% of his shots were from midrange against the Clippers. Only 33% were at the rim.
The former is the highest rate of his career between the playoffs and regular season (previously was 58%). The latter is the lowest rate of his career. During the 2020-21 playoffs, those numbers were 66% and 34% respectively. His midrange jumper has swung from frustrating safety blanket to ideal counter back to frustrating safety blanket.
Some of these reversals are tied to Paul’s decline. Back then, for the most part, he still functioned like an All-Star and primed his center for quality looks at the rim possession after possession. Their chemistry was hand-in-glove as a pillar of a multifaceted offense. Now, he’s a background character playing off the ball more than ever.
As Phoenix inches deeper in the playoffs, I believe the importance of the Durant-Ayton pick-and-roll will swell. We saw them link up against the Clippers to varying levels of success. The development of their synergy feels like a crucial storyline. Ayton is learning to play off of Durant’s gravity. Durant is learning how to feed Ayton the ball how and where he prefers.
It’s a work in progress, but there’s clearly a foundation upon which to expand. Durant’s a stellar interior passer and scorer who commands the focus of defense. Ayton can be – and has been for lengths of his career – a superb screen-and-roll ally.
I don’t think Phoenix can always turn to the Paul-Ayton pick-and-roll late in games or solely rely on Booker and Durant’s shot-making (OK, maybe the second facet will always be available). There should be some dynamism. The Durant-Ayton pick-and-roll, especially if Ayton tweaks his shot profile to provide more gusto, might be the answer.
Ahead of almost every playoff showdown the last three seasons, Ayton surfaces as an X factor for Phoenix in various ways. That’s the case again entering another Mile High duel. The Suns likely cannot afford the Ayton of Round 1 to join them in Denver. The Nuggets are both too good and employ specific defensive practices that push him into the spotlight for a similar showing.
When the Suns landed Durant, their appeal as contenders rested on the idea of a Big Four: Durant, Booker, Paul and Ayton. Despite a few spurts from Paul and Ayton, Phoenix was a two-man show to kickstart its 2023 playoff run. That must change moving forward. Ayton can help. He’s certainly going to have the opportunity.
The Suns would welcome him seizing it.
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