After the Phoenix Suns’ home loss to the second-place Sacramento Kings on Saturday, Deandre Ayton told the media that he’s starting to regain his shooting rhythm following the two-game absence of the ankle-injured Kevin Durant.
Ayton dominated the paint and finished with 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting, game-high 12 rebounds, two steals, two blocks and one turnover. He dominated the paint during the first three quarters, going 8-of-14 for 19 points and 10 boards. He outplayed Kings’ All-Star big Domantas Sabonis (17 points, eight rebounds, four assists, two steals, three turnovers), who had just 11 points on 3-of-8 shooting through the first three periods.
Ayton was the Suns’ second-leading scorer behind Devin Booker’s game-high 28 points with his eight assists, three rebounds and four steals.
“Past two games, I feel back in my rhythm,” Ayton said to The Republic in the postgame. “I think on the push shot floater, still a little rusty on that one. But this is the type of team where you don’t know what teams will throw at you, who’s gonna have the hot hand, you just gotta be ready for those opportunities. That’s what we’re all about, and I’m just happy I’m back in rhythm to where I’m finding spaces in teams’ defense to get the shot going.”
Much of Ayton’s shots came from being opened up from pick-and-rolls into the midrange and toward the basket mainly with Booker and the third part of the Suns’ original Big 3 in Chris Paul, who had 16 points, game-high 16 assists, and a steal.
But in the fourth quarter, Ayton had just one shot attempt as the Kings’ defense closed in on him in the middle.
“Every time I rolled down, I felt that Sabonis had a little extra help in the fourth,” Ayton said. “Where if I wanted to go to a right-hand hook, it was either (Trey) Lyles behind me ready to strip me, or (De’Aaron) Fox was coming down there out of his way out of his position to really help down there, and that’s why we generated some 3s. Take what you get, take what the defense gives you and they just said, ‘We gonna let y’all shoot.’”
In the grind matchup that produced nine lead changes and 11 ties, the Kings pulled away in the final two minutes as the Suns’ outside shooting went cold.
The Suns went 9-of-22 from the floor overall, and 3-of-14 from the 3 in the fourth, and a paltry 13-of-44 from deep throughout the contest.
Williams was asked if the Suns should’ve got the ball to Ayton more down the stretch, and he got just five total free throw attempts.
“Maybe. I’ll look at the film and see, but we don’t play that way. We just let the game dictate,” Williams said. “We’re not gonna sit here and say we gotta go here or there. We’ve never done that. Was the ball movement there? Probably. They forced the ball to where they wanted it to go and we didn’t knock down shots. That hurt D.A. If we’re not knocking down shots, then they crowd the paint. There were times when he got it in the pocket and there were two or three guys there, we kicked it to guys and couldn’t make the shot.”
Williams basically doubled down on his answer to The Republic at the Suns’ Tuesday practice about Ayton having less shots when Durant has played with them. Their shot distribution is determined on a game-by-game basis and their opponent’s personnel.
“We haven’t talked about it at all. We don’t say to any of our guys, ‘You gotta get 20 shots, you gotta get 10.’ It’s just what the game dictates,” Williams said. “We feel like we have a team of willing passers. If D.A. gets 20, 25 shots in the flow of the offense, everybody would be happy about it because he’s an efficient scorer. But it’s not something that we choreographed at all as far shot distribution.”
Ayton understands they need him when Durant receives the attention he draws from the defense. He’s the league’s 13th all-time leading scorer, and averaging 29.5 points per game this season.
Kevin Durant’s three appearances with the Suns from Mar. 1 through last Wednesday has caused changes in their offense as one of their top two scoring threats with Devin Booker in their three games with him.
Deandre Ayton, who’s averaging a career-best 18.2 points this season, had just 20 field goal attempts through those games compared to the nearly 15 per game in February before and after Durant was acquired by them on the 8th that month.
But during Paul’s 21 total games that he missed, mostly in November, former starting four-man Cameron Johnson’s 37 straight games from the start of the season through Jan. 19, and Devin Booker missing most of December and January, all from their injuries, Ayton averaged about 13.6 FGA per game to help with the scoring load.
Durant and Booker opens up a lot of options on offense, and Ayton had about seven shots per game in those three games with Durant.
Williams told the media at their Friday practice they aren’t necessarily going back to the drawing board without their Kevin Durant. Chris Paul summarized that notion at their practice that they’ve played more games without him this season than the three with him.
In addition, Paul added that his pick-and-rolls with Ayton is still a scoring threat in the Suns offense.
“D.A. is fine, regardless of who we’re playing against,” Paul said. “I think we’ve been together long enough to see every defensive coverage you could possibly see. You don’t know how they’re gonna guard it until you start the game off and then we just learn. You don’t go into the games saying they’re gonna do this. Stuff constantly changes, so I think that’s something that we’ve been good at is just adjusting.”
Ayton knows the Suns offense will be fine in Durant’s return after he’s re-evaluated for his left ankle sprain in three weeks, and is fitting himself into the Suns offense for how teams defend him.
“Mainly how these teams are guarding me, they say, ‘Y’all got KD and Book and 3 (Chris Paul), we just gonna lock up the paint. I just think they just gonna live with the jumpshots,” Ayton said.
“But now I think it’s starting to open now and one screen is opening up the whole floor for me. So I think when K (Kevin Durant) gets back, they’ll (Booker, Durant, and Paul) be back to normal doing their thing or I’m dominating down low.”