Tied in a 1-1 series having just lost both game two and their franchise player for at least the next two games, Chris Paul and DeAndre Ayton promptly rose to the occasion in the Phoenix Suns’ latest playoff victory.
This is nothing new for the former part of this tandem, as Paul has a propensity for timely and resounding outbursts, the likes that, especially on this playoffs stage and even more-so on the road, attest to the future Hall of Famer’s cerebral and downright legendary status in the league.
For the latter, this became a career-moment, as Ayton (with pending contract discussions and looming questions about sustainability of the level of play he’s shown since November) displayed skill, dependability, composure, comfortability, and growth on a stage where the lights shine the brightest.
Knowing they’d be sans Booker for at least the next two games, there was a December game that I felt would serve as a template for what we’d see.
It was spot on.
You put two and two, or in this case, 3 and 22 together, mix in a little playoff adversity and bad weather in the form of injury, and the perfect storm was created.
How Suns Big Deandre Ayton Stepped up Big Time
In a 114-111 road win during Game 3, where there were 15 lead changes and 14 ties, the Suns were led by Ayton and his 28 points. He shot 13-20, leading the Suns in attempts, and included 17 boards, three steals, and a block.
The fourth year Arizona product scored in every way his shot profile has suggested he could this season. From the post on set plays (on either block), from three at the top of the key, out of triple threat, rim running in transition, from the high post, on the short-roll, on the traditional roll, off-script in creating for himself acting as the centric point of the offense, as well as sealing in transition.
He displayed the wherewithal and determination of a traditional big man, operating from those spots on the floor, while mixing in his remix to the position via his plethora of guard-like skills from the handle, to dexterity, a quick first step, and array of soft touch finishes.
He was downright dominant, going 11-for-17 in the paint, with the lion share (22) of Suns points in the paint total of 64.
Offense, however, is only half of the story.
Defensively, he was ever-present. Ayton does a whole lot that won’t be captured by the stat sheet. However, he was extremely effective in those secondary passing lanes as opposing players got penetration and he was tasked with playing two on one. With active hands and feet, he was able to do so effectively and consistently.
He was extremely effective in pick and roll defense. He did so in his traditional active drop, in a short drop, as well as up at the level of the screen and even trapping. He was also extremely solid, sometimes fronting the post to deny Jonas Valanciunas post touches, and contesting shots with his length as well as with fundamental verticality. Playing 34 high-leverage, high-usage minutes while amassing just two fouls is a skill, and Ayton had it on full display on Friday.
Lastly, he put on an absolute master class in screening especially down the stretch. He’s one half of the pick and roll tandem, and his acumen in this scenario deserves far more attention.
I’ve dubbed it “screen intelligence” all season, but watching Ayton, oftentimes especially with Chris Paul, he’ll flip the angle of his original screen and adjust it to the angle that be most advantageous in freeing Paul up to then do what he does best in attacking in this scenario.
However, it is Ayton’s screen intelligence in angles as well as holding his screen before diving on the roll, doing so in a manner that shows his maturation and understanding of how important it is to do this diligently, that has made them one of the best pick and roll tandems in the league.
He spoke early last season on watching film of Paul paired up with the likes DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin, and Clint Capela to develop an understanding of how it should look, and how he can replicate what those three did in their time with Paul.
Ayton is the most skilled center Paul has ever played with, and he’s quite literally a little bit of all three of these players in one. From the soft touch of a Griffin, to the reach and catch radius of a Jordan, to the quickness transitioning from screen to roll, and even the ability to play make on the short-roll or attack out of triple threat in that ie Griffin, he’s become the entire package.
It was an all-impressive display from the big man, and he is a key in the group of players for the Suns that have unlocked this new iteration and ceiling, being every bit as dependable as they are effective.
The creation on one end in evolution of self-manufactured baskets, coupled with composure and effectiveness on the defensive end allowed for Ayton to display the absolute best basketball of his career in a “got to have it” game on the road to take a series lead. Dominating his matchup, his 21-point display in the first half (13 in the first quarter) was excellent time on task.
How Suns Guard Chris Paul Stepped Up Big Time
“Ole reliable” is a moniker aptly describing for his dependability and the dependability of his shot profile come “winning time.”
Chris Paul put on an absolute master class in floor generalship in this one. From making amends for when he said it was “his fault” in Game 2 of not getting Ayton the ball (seven of his 14 assists went to Ayton), to getting other players involved over the course of this one, he stepped up to the plate.
CP3 was ever-present in all aspects of this one, and finally got around to doing what he does best for this team with more fourth quarter exploits. I said it as recently as after Game 1, but he does it as well as anyone else, and scored 19 points in the final period.
He snaked drop coverage, manipulated the switches when they deployed them as he meandered around to his spots on the floor unassumingly before executing, hit Ayton on the short-roll when they trapped, and even got to the basket a few times and executed in straight isolation as he completely iced the game with mid range pull-up after mid range pull-up.
He just has all the answers to the test, and waits to see which questions the opposition poses.
As Coach Williams stated postgame, “I wish I could tell you there was some orchestrating going on, but that’s just Chris, his ability to see the floor.”
Such a consistent and dominant display of taking opposing schemes and game plans, then completely shredding them time and time again has a demoralizing long-term effect. There’s a level of fear both executing and having “that guy” that can do so almost single-handedly and consistently, it weighs on the mentality of teams especially in a series setting.
That’s how you amass a record such as this in the clutch, and that’s how you win games even against the odds.
The tandem dominance of Paul and Ayton here was their best showing together, out-doing the aforementioned December game in Portland while looking a lot like the script and template of said game.
As Williams often says, “You can’t get happy on the farm.”
As the Suns file away the emotions and successes of game three to focus on game four, they rest assured that whatever happens, they’ll have this tandem to rely on as the hold down the fort while Booker recovers.