The Phoenix Suns continue to work their way through preseason play, ahead of what they will hope is a deep playoff run this coming season. Monday night was the organization’s fourth tune up game, a 117-106 win over the Portland Trail Blazers.
This was the second straight win over the rebuilding Trail Blazers, although in Scoot Henderson the future of the Suns’ rivals is bright. Hitting closer to home is the franchise’s own second round draft pick from this season that is already doing all of the right things for his new team.
But for those hoping for added spice in the form of Deandre Ayton playing against his former team in their house, it never came. But why?
Ayton was listed as out prior to tipoff, with the reason of “rest/undisclosed” offered up to the media. Which was strange, given that Ayton had only played against the Suns a few days earlier, in a first matchup against Jusuf Nurkic. The centerpiece of the deal that sent Ayton to Portland.
Perhaps he was worried about the reception he would get from the The Valley. After all, Ayton did not want to speak about his time with the team prior to the game, had recently unfollowed Kevin Durant and Devin Booker on social media, and appeared to use an expletive towards the team in the first meeting between the two since the trade.
But once Ayton was introduced on the big screen at the game, the reaction was – muted? Certainly it was a long way from what LeBron James had to face on his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the past. Ayton himself even appeared to look mildly surprised by the altogether tepid response.
It may be different when he comes back during the regular season, but the reality is a lot of Suns fans are mature enough to realize that Ayton had to go, but that he also did some good while with the team. That run to the 2021 NBA Finals feels like a long time ago now, but he played his part.
In some ways it is that run which makes fans angrier, knowing that Ayton has the ability on any given night to anchor a group in deep waters. That is all in the past now, with Ayton perhaps thinking the backlash was going to be a lot worse than it has been so far since the split.
That is not the only reason he may have “rest/undisclosed” his way out of this one though, and it is ironic that it may also be the same reason Suns fans didn’t go too hard on him. The Suns have looked really good in preseason acton. In the limited minutes we’ve seen of Durant, Booker and Bradley Beal, the offensive capabilities look potentially historic.
Being really good and not missing Ayton is exactly what the front office had in mind with the trade, but it also helps Suns fans forget quicker as well. Winning cures everything, and if Ayton puts up 22 and 10 a night on a roster than goes 27-55 while the Suns compete for a title, fans aren’t going to care.
Nurkic is integral to this way of thinking, and it really does help that so far he has looked like the kind of player that the front office gushed about at media day recently. He is helping offensively – knows what to do and when on that end – and defensively has surpassed modest expectations so far.
As long as he is healthy, the trade to send Ayton away will look like a smart one. That is a big if for a player who has missed plenty of time through injury in the last several years, but Nurkic has already gotten the better of Ayton in preseason play. That too may have been the final piece of the puzzle as to why he skipped the game.
It is one thing to lose a half of preseason basketball to the guy you were traded for in Portland – but quite another to have it happen in Phoenix. Perhaps Ayton just didn’t want that smoke before the season has even begun, because failure to get the better of Nurkic for a second game would have had the internet writing his obituaries early.
It also helps having Grayson Allen – the other key rotational piece from the Ayton deal – continue to look good early. We’ll never get the answer out of Ayton himself, but this looked like a player who just didn’t fancy going out there and giving Suns fans something to boo about, even if the reaction from the fans was far from terrible for their former first overall pick.