The Phoenix Suns kept the good times rolling on Tuesday night, with an in-season tournament win over the Portland Trail Blazers, 120-107. Their fourth straight win coming on the back of beating up on the Utah Jazz twice away from home, and closing out the Minnesota Timberwolves prior to that. Their biggest win of the season so far.
The Suns flew out of the gates, before being pegged back some by a Trail Blazers roster that welcomed back Malcolm Brogdon and got an unexpected second-quarter boost from the little known Duop Reath off the bench. Kevin Durant was at his impervious best, pouring in a game high 31 points and in doing so climbing to 11th all-time in scoring in the NBA.
In the aftermath of a game that the Suns looked in control of for large parts, Devin Booker had some words of advice for big man Deandre Ayton.
The former teammates meeting for the first time in the regular season since the trade late in the offseason that saw the one-time first overall pick by the Suns traded to the Trail Blazers for Jusuf Nurkic and Grayson Allen. Ayton had a solid game – quiet but productive – en route to 18 points and eight boards.
He seemed like a man on the mission when on the court, and was aggressive in looking for his own shot when the opportunity came. To Ayton’s credit though, he did this in the flow of the game, and didn’t try and take over in an unnecessary and harmful way. Speaking to Gerald Bourguet of PHNX Sports afterwards, Booker had this to say about the matchup;
"“It’s fun (playing Ayton), you know I think it’s our first time in the regular season? Happy we came out with the win. He played extra hard tonight, I seen that, and my challenge for him is to play like that every night”."
It is not difficult to read between the lines on what Booker is saying here about Ayton. The knock on the 25-year-old center throughout his time in The Valley was that he often lacked the focus and intensity required to win at the highest level on a consistent basis.
Being traded for a package revolving around Nurkic and Allen – underwhelming at the time to everybody, represented the true value of Ayton around the league. He had anchored a team defensively on the way to the NBA Finals as recently as 2021, but that version of the player had seemed further away than ever.
Ayton had failed to really kick on from that watershed moment in his young career, and it looked like he had fallen victim to the trap that many a dominant big man has. He likely wanted to be rewarded with his hard work defensively and be featured more and have more touches as time went on, whereas with Booker and later Durant on this roster, that was never going to be the case.
Booker then wants to see Ayton use the opportunity of playing for a rebuilding roster to put up the highest numbers of his career to date – a goal he has so far failed to meet – while also becoming a leader on a young roster featuring the likes of Scoot Henderson and Shaedon Sharpe. The 3-11 start the Trail Blazers have endured has been rough, but that isn’t all on Ayton.
As seen after the game, Ayton remains a popular figure with sections of the fans, as well as the staff of both the Suns and The Footprint Center. He wanted more than to be the fourth option on a roster with championship aspirations once Bradley Beal joined the party, and he got his wish in going to Portland.
The challenge for Ayton now then – and it is one that is off to a stuttering start – is to become the dominant big that he has shown he can be before. Developing alongside Henderson (injured for the game against the Suns) will be crucial to that, as will ensuring he brings it on both ends of the court each night. Booker knows he is capable, and is trying to prod him in the right direction.