As has been the case all season long, the Phoenix Suns added
another double-digit victory to their resume by defeating the New
Orleans Pelicans 110-99 in Game 1 of the NBA Playoffs.
Many moments stood out, as the Valley once was ignited by Suns
playoff basketball returning for the second straight
Devin Booker’s early dominance led into Defensive Player of the
Year-type moments from Mikal Bridges. Chris Paul later had a
virtuoso fourth quarter performance, which included 19 final-period
points, to propel Phoenix away from a late Pelicans push.
However, we can't forget about the defensive performance we all
witnessed from 2018 No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton. Once again,
Ayton’s play stepped up when the stakes raised. Finishing with 21
points, 9 rebounds and 4 blocks on 10 of 15 shooting, Ayton's
two-way prowess on display was nothing short of fantastic. Sure,
Jonas Valanciunas gobbled up an absurd 25 rebounds, but Ayton won
the first round of a back-and-forth, big-man battle.
Ayton looked the part of a monster, literally taking over
possessions around the rim with the ferocity that made many fall in
love with him during his lone collegiate season at the University
of Arizona. The playoff version of Ayton continues to be a resource
that pays big-time dividends for the Suns on both ends of the
“Yeah, it was fun,” Ayton said of his defensive performance
postgame. “Just being that coordinator, telling my guys where the
screen is coming from. I like sliding my feet. Just being out there
causing havoc, especially in the pick-and-rolls we’re in. It was
fun, and just protecting the rim as well. Making sure I protect the
rim, do my best. Just get back and put a body on Valanciunas.”
Ayton’s defensive versatility was not only showcased with elite
rim-protection ability, but also in being a special athlete to
contain guards easily on pick-and-roll opportunities. According to
ESPN Stats & Info, the Pelicans shot a paltry 2 of 20 (10%) Ayton
was the primary defender. When Ayton has these moments defensively,
it’s fair to wonder how high his two-way ceiling truly is.
“I thought the ability to guard smaller guys and force tough
shots, I think there was a couple where he was guarding a smaller
guy, and they tried to get to the basket and he sent it out of
bounds. That allowed for us to set our defense,” Suns head coach
Monty Williams said of Ayton after Phoenix’s Game 1 victory.
“He’s a weapon for us. When you’re in a late clock situation,
you put a 7-foot athletic guy on the ball and trust him not to foul
and force a tough shot, you’ll take it every time.”
Ayton's defensive clinic on Easter Sunday brought back an
immediate reminder as to why he’s more than deserving of a hefty
payday this summer. This version of Ayton changes everything for
the Suns’ long-term window, one where this level of team success
can carry for years to come.
Take a gander at how Ayton defended certain Pelicans on Sunday,
per NBA.com's matchup data:
- Jonas Valanciunas: 4 of 14 FGA
- CJ McCollum: 0 of 7 FGA (0.0%)
- Brandon Ingram: 1 of 6 FGA
Effectively taking New Orleans’ three best players out of rhythm
when they were matched up with him, Ayton’s locked-in mindset
helped ignite an incredible first-half performance on the defensive
end, allowing only 34 points by halftime.
“It was supposed to be 5 blocks, but he just protected our
paint, man. We tell him that every day,” Devin Booker said
postgame. “If somebody gets beat, you rotate. We have to his back
when Valanciunas is in offensive-rebounding position and those
other guys are crashing. We’re telling him sell out and stop the
It was apparent throughout Phoenix’s Game 1 win over New Orleans
that this will be a very short series. Although the Pelicans are a
scrappy, resilient group — which showed through once more with
their valiant third-quarter comeback — the Suns are simply a few
tiers above them.
And when the weapon in Ayton is fully loaded as an
All-Defense-level rim-protector, the possibilities are truly
endless for how the Suns can pull off victories.
This version of Deandre Ayton is one you don’t hesitate paying
rookie-scale max-level money to. As he showed during Game 1,
‘Playoff Ayton’ is a truly different experience.