The Phoenix Suns are one game away from the NBA Finals, thanks in large part to the play of their third-year center, Deandre Ayton. Ayton has been nothing short of dominant in the Western Conference Finals, with his latest performance a 19-point, 22-rebound, 4-block effort in Game 4 in L.A. on a night the Suns desperately needed that kind of effort with their dreadful perimeter shooting. The big man gave them a lift while Chris Paul and Devin Booker continued their Game 3 shooting struggles, going 14-of-44 from the field combined on the night, and was the biggest reason they were able to gut out a win.
Ayton has provided the Suns with everything they could ask for on both ends, dominating on the glass, feasting in pick-and-roll (particularly early in the game), and providing a massive deterrent for the Clippers daring to enter the paint. It’s quite the leap for a player who entered the NBA with real questions about his defensive feel for the game, as his stiffness on that end was in jarring contrast to the fluidity he showed offensively. Three years later, his comfort level as a defender is night and day from his rookie season and it allows his physical tools to shine.
For Ayton, this regular season didn’t show a noticeable leap in productivity on offense, as he found himself in the third option position alongside Chris Paul and Devin Booker, but in the playoffs he’s shown how he can dominate from that spot. Ayton deserves a ton of credit for taking on that role and embracing how, even while a bit limiting, it allows him to do the things he does best. Most notably that is crushing on the glass and rolling hard to the rim, where he’s become one of the NBA’s best roll men alongside one of the league’s all-time great pick-and-roll ball handlers in Paul.
On Saturday night, Ayton was asked about what it’s been like playing with Paul and what that’s done for his game and he had plenty to say. He called Paul “the best thing to ever happen” to him, noting he’s like a big bro and pushes him the way no one ever has before.
"I love CP, man. That's really the only teammate that really pushed me. Like big bro type push knowing what I got and I never thought that I had."
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) June 27, 2021
It is clear that this isn’t just talk from Ayton, who has embraced the tough love aspect of being coached by Monty Williams and playing alongside Chris Paul, the latter of whom can be notoriously hard on young bigs with his expectations of them and it can be hard to deal with — just ask Blake Griffin. Ayton’s play on the court is evidence of that as is how he’s asserted himself on the court, looking to dominate on both ends and being more vocal about it this season, showing that competitive fire that wasn’t always apparent. That has been awoken in him, a combination of his environment and also just his own personal growth.
The admiration goes both ways, as Chris Paul spoke after the game about how he “genuinely loves” Deandre and that despite some heated conversations early, he’s so proud of what Ayton has become.
"To see his growth man, I get goosebumps."
CP3 discusses Ayton's progression after the Suns' Game 4 win. pic.twitter.com/2WbtSHcaPI
— NBA TV (@NBATV) June 27, 2021
It’s cool to see that partnership work in the way that everyone in Phoenix hoped it could. The fit was clear with their abilities as pick-and-roll players, and you can see how Ayton has learned from the tempo and patience of Paul, who likewise seems a bit rejuvenated playing alongside a springy, energetic big man again. The Suns are enjoying the fruits of their labor, and now are on the doorstep of a Finals appearance.