Very rarely will a number two seeded team assume the “underdog” role during the NBA Playoffs, but like many things this year, the path between the Phoenix Suns and their first ever NBA championship appears a bit backwards at the moment. With Anthony Davis and LeBron James having seemingly returned to top form following seperate injury-based debacles, the Los Angeles Lakers are not only favored to beat the Suns, but also own Vegas’s second best odds to repeat as champions.
Davis especially enters as a more looming threat given his superior youth and with his incredible run during last year’s postseason still fresh in everyone’s minds. En route to a championship, Davis averaged a whopping 27.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game during the playoffs last year for the Lakers.
Even more impressively, Davis accomplished all this while going against an incredibly tough array of opposing bigs. Davis battled and emerged victorious over Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Jokic, and Bam Adebayo. But this year, in steps Deandre Ayton, making his playoff debut at only 22 years old.
But even while attaining this incredibly difficult “first assignment,” Ayton responded almost perfectly last night. Adding 21 points and 16 rebounds, Ayton stepped up as a dominant and necessary second option for the team behind Devin Booker as Chris Paul nursed a shoulder injury. Ayton even shot 90% from the field while doing so, joining Bill Russell as the only two players in NBA postseason history to shoot that efficiently from the field while scoring 20+ points and snatching 15+ rebounds.
More importantly though, Ayton really bothered the seemingly untouchable Davis while working as a rim defender, allowing him to only gather 13 points and shoot 31% from the field. Those marks clock in at -8.8 and -18% differentials from his regular season numbers. The Suns went on to win 99-90.
When considering the circumstances at hand such as Davis’s typical excellence in the playoffs, Ayton’s inexperience, and his past struggles to validate his selection as a first overall pick, this certainly feels like best game of his career. Entering the bout, most hoped for Ayton to merely hold his own against Davis, but he undoubtedly exceeded those expectations by undisputedly outplaying AD.
Running often with fast break gunners such as Paul, Booker, and Jae Crowder, Ayton found his way to the rim often, making precise and aggressive cuts to get open down low. He too attacked the glass with aggressiveness, with eight of his 16 boards coming on the offensive end.
This performance too has the potential to significantly help out Ayton in the long run, as he becomes eligible for a rookie extension this offseason. Recent bigs to also cash in on deals such as these include Pascal Siakam (129.9 M) and Domantas Sabonis (74.9 M).
If Ayton continues this, it obviously will bode well for Phoenix, as the Suns need Ayton to serve as an adequate third star if they hope to make a serious run. Looking ahead, watch for Ayton to again take advantage of Davis’s conditioning, as he seemingly outran Davis all day on Sunday.