The Deandre Ayton experience can be frustrating.
Here’s a legitimate 7-footer with all the athleticism, talent and durability any franchise would want out of a No. 1 overall pick, who can sometimes float in and out of possessions, settle for jumpers and leave those around him wanting more.
The primary knock against Ayton is that he wants more. To get more touches, to have more responsibility, to be more than a center. For the Suns to take down the top-seeded Nuggets in their second-round series, they’ll need Ayton to narrow his role – then thrive in it. In other words, they’ll need Ayton to play like a center, and defend the opponent’s center, who just happens to be a two-time MVP.
For many, Suns-Nuggets might be the unofficial Western Conference finals. The Nuggets finished the regular season with the best record in the conference and the no. 4 seed Suns are the team that traded for Kevin Durant. Adding to the intrigue is that these teams have never played each other. Not these teams, at least. Even in the two meetings between the Suns and Nuggets after the Durant deal, Nikola Jokic did not play. Those games are meaningless.
To get a sense of this matchup, one can only look at the rosters, the stats and past series to cobble together a semblance of a prediction.
Both the Suns and Nuggets are unsteadily top-heavy. The Nuggets had the regular season’s second-worst bench by net rating, and the Suns bench was outscored by 1.7 points every 100 possessions against the Clippers. In what should have been smooth-sailing series, both teams had to play their starters a ton (Phoenix’s starters averaged the most minutes in the playoffs; Denver’s third-most) in order to advance.
Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Ayton headline the Suns’ makeshift outfit. The Nuggets have added depth over the past year (Bruce Brown, Christian Braun, Reggie Jackson) but still default to playing the starting lineup that includes Jokic, Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. as much as possible. Some of this series will be swung by whose bench can chisel an advantage. Most of this series will come down to the best players going head-to-head.
Which brings us back to Ayton. The most relevant film for this series may be from the 2021 playoffs. The Nuggets, without Murray, got swept by the Suns in the second round. Ayton was a big part of Phoenix’s success. Because he has the size and athleticism to defend Jokic one-on-one, Phoenix’s other defenders were able to focus on cutting off passing lanes.
Here’s an example. Ayton drops back, Jae Crowder denies Gordon a cutting lane and the other Suns defenders zone up against Denver’s shooters.
The Suns put sand in the gears of the Nuggets’ offense and cruised to a sweep. Ayton’s plus-minus by game in that series: plus-13, plus-16, plus-18 and plus-15.
Things are obviously different now. Murray is back. Jokic and Gordon have developed sweet improvisational chemistry, and Porter Jr. just got done shooting 42.4% against the Timberwolves in the first round. Even with the addition of Durant and Booker’s ascendence, this will not be a sweep.
But the Suns' strategy of how to defend Jokic will likely be the same as it was in 2021: Ayton, toe-to-toe with the most impactful offensive player in the league, while their other defenders will have to defend in space. There will be creases, but they have to be quick to close them or risk Jokic slicing them up.
The Suns already struggled with this (although to a much less dangerous degree) against the Clippers. Sometimes it feels like the Suns mosey through possessions like it’s the morning walk-through and not the actual game.
The Suns need more from Ayton than that. He cannot get caught flat-footed, or Jokic will drive past him or find someone cutting behind him. Ayton will have to mix up his looks: press, drop and everything in between. When the Nuggets bring screens into the mix, Ayton needs to be alert.
The Suns can score with the Nuggets, a responsibility that falls to Durant, Booker (averaging 37.2 points on 60.2% shooting in the playoffs) and Paul. Ayton can’t get caught up in trying to get his in what should be a high-scoring series. For him, the only thing in the box score that matters will be the plus-minus and Jokic’s stats. There is no stopping Jokic, but to blunt his impact even a little creates a domino effect throughout the Nuggets machine.
There will be plenty of Xs and Os and strategy involved. Adjustments will be made by the coaches and basketball IQ will be at play between the stars. But Ayton’s mentality is the ultimate X factor in this series.