Deandre Ayton’s job on Nikola Jokic is swinging series in Suns’ favor

NBA Playoffs, Phoenix Suns

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Deandre Ayton’s done well enough in his matchup against Nikola Jokic to shift the Phoenix Suns’ second-round series in their favor.

Look at the numbers and you’ll see plenty of reasons the Phoenix Suns have a commanding 2-0 lead over the Denver Nuggets in their second-round playoff series. All five starters have scored in double figures in both games, showcasing a very balanced offensive attack that’s making the Nuggets pay from every angle. Lopsided second halves show a home team that’s outscored Denver 65-47 in two third quarters and 71-56 in two fourth quarters.

The rabid fanbase at PHX Arena, the obvious absence of Jamal Murray and the superior depth in of the Suns all stand out as compelling reasons for the 2-0 advantage as well.

But beyond the raw numbers, lurking beneath the surface, is the biggest reason the first two games of this series haven’t been close: The league MVP isn’t outplaying Deandre Ayton by a nearly wide-enough margin for his team to have a chance.

This isn’t a dig at Nikola Jokic‘s well-deserved MVP award, or even his first two games of the series, for that matter. So far against Phoenix, the Joker has put up 23.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game on 19-of-40 shooting from the field and 3-of-8 shooting (37.5 percent) from long range. Those aren’t bad numbers!

They’re just not what the Nuggets grew accustomed to seeing during the regular season (26.4 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 8.3 APG, 56.6 FG%, 38.8 3P%) and certainly not what they saw from him in their first-round playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers (33.0 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 4.5 APG, 52.8 FG%, 42.9 3P%).

And because Jokic isn’t decisively winning that matchup against Ayton, the Suns have been the thoroughly dominant team.

Deandre Ayton has swung the series in the Suns’ favor

Before Game 1, I asked head coach Monty Williams about the Ayton-Jokic matchup, and downplayed the idea of it being a one-on-one showdown.

“We’ve been pretty consistent: When you’re playing against great players like that, it’s a team effort,” he said. “Obviously DA brings a lot to the table as far as his ability to defend and rebound and block shots and distract shots, but our ability to show Jokic a crowd and rebound the ball and a few other things is going to be key. I can see the intrigue with the media and even as a fan, but as a team, we have to really give DA and Dario [Saric] and Frank [Kaminsky] and all of guys who will be on him coverage on the backside, coverage with bodies in the paint.”

Williams is right; defending a superstar who can score, dribble and make plays for others requires a full team effort. But there’s a reason Ayton’s minutes are almost directly mirroring Jokic’s time on the floor, and in Game 1, the results were telling:

While the Joker still finished that series opener with 22 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks, it also took him 23 shots to get there, he only chipped in 3 assists, and he got to the free-throw line just once. The key was Ayton holding him to 5-of-14 shooting, almost solely in single coverage. The Suns didn’t send a platoon of double- and triple-teams that would allow Jokic to tap into his passing ability, but rather, let Ayton cover him single-handedly, using help defenders to crowd the paint, clog up passing lanes and force the other Nuggets to beat them when the ball rotated.

The Suns have the scrambling defense to pull off that kind of strategy, but it all starts with Ayton being able to get a hand up on Jokic’s jump shot on the perimeter, stay grounded on his ball fakes, stick with him when he drives and challenge his shots with verticality without fouling.

That’s a lot to ask of any big man against the NBA‘s MVP, but through two games, Ayton has continued his torrid start to his first-ever postseason by rising to that challenge. Jokic has been held below 30 points in only three of his eight playoff games so far, and two of those have come against Phoenix.

Williams has talked all season long about having an “appropriate fear” and “respect” for quality opponents. Going against a player he admires and respects above all others, Ayton has embodied that mindset to a tee. After Game 1, when informed Jokic had said Ayton was a player who’s given him problems in their matchups, DA was taken aback.

“He said that? Wow, that’s lit,” Ayton said. “I love playing against Jokic, man. That’s the MVP of our league. He has so much. He has a lot to cover, the dude can do anything. That’s just the modern center right there. You have to watch out for drives, he can shoot, he can do everything, he can playmake for his teammates. Just coming in every day in and out, learning what he loves to do and just competing, man.”

And compete he has. In Game 2, while Jokic put up 15 points on 7-of-13 shooting when defended by Ayton, the Suns were able to blow the game wide open in the third quarter. Before that, though, DA picked up two quick fouls in the first five minutes of the game, and suddenly Denver had an opportunity to get its MVP rolling and climb back into the series.

According to Williams, Ayton had other ideas after collecting himself.

“Huge growth moment for him,” Williams said. “He was pretty frustrated when he picked up the two [fouls]. He did a really good job of getting his emotions back to a balanced place, and then when we brought him back in, he was able to be effective without fouling. He moved his feet, he had his hands up in the air and he did a really good job of being aware of his personal foul situation. That’s a growth moment for him for sure, and to do that on that stage.”

Chris Paul took it one step further.

“I think the best part of it was that DA got on our ass,” Paul said with a laugh. “He was mad, he was mad at us. And I loved it, ‘cause rightfully so. He was right, we’ve gotta protect him, we’ve gotta help him. It just shows the growth — not only in him but our whole team. There’s so much onus on him night in and night out; we’re asking him to rebound, we’re asking him to screen, we’re asking him to roll. And he’s just out there playing hard, and to see him bounce back from those two fouls and have the game that he did is great.”

Ayton finished his night with 15 point and 10 rebounds on 6-of-10 shooting, and while it paled in comparison to the Joker’s 24 points, 13 boards and 6 dimes on 9-of-17 shooting, Phoenix took a 19-point lead into the fourth quarter, which meant Denver’s superstar didn’t even see the court in the final period. The end result? A 123-98 rout that was all garbage time in the fourth.

It’s not that Ayton is outplaying Jokic, of course. While DA’s 17.5 points and 10.0 rebounds per game on 65.2 percent shooting in this series have been great, they don’t stack up with what Jokic is doing individually. But from a team perspective? Ayton is maximizing his role by doing the little things like defending, rebounding, sprinting in transition, being hyper-efficient around the basket and using his gravity to free up teammates.

By simply not allowing Jokic to definitively separate himself from Ayton through the first two games, the Suns’ depth and far superior backcourt has won out. Phoenix has also had an tactical advantage with beautiful offense and punishing pick-and-roll sets targeting Michael Porter Jr. and pre-rotating Nuggets defenders at every turn, but DA making life difficult for Jokic has prevented Denver from laying a claim to having the best player on the floor — something that can often decide a playoff series between two good teams.

“Jokic is a great player,” said Torrey Craig, a current Sun and former Jokic teammate. “He’s gonna make tough shots and he’s gonna score. We’re not gonna be able to stop him every time, but I think DA has been doing a really good job.”

It’s not just the defensive end, however. While Ayton’s individual offense is typically limited to shots around the basket and being spoon-fed by two All-Star guards, the natural gravity he provides as a rim-runner has opened everything up for the Suns’ offense against a pre-rotating Nuggets defense.

Devin Booker was asked about how he was using his off-ball movement to open things up for teammates after Game 1, but he immediately deferred credit to his big man.

“I wouldn’t even say me,” Booker said. “I would say Deandre, which you don’t get credit for, but rolling hard to the rim and opening up that backside corner, forcing people to tag. Also getting out and sprinting the floor in transition. I was telling him after the game, there was one time I took off, I was going full speed and I look to my right and DA’s passing me, and I was running as fast as I can. So that opens up a lot of opportunities for all of us, and he deserves the credit for that — for rolling, forcing somebody to tag and opening up a wide-open shot.”

Williams has similarly given Ayton credit all season long for being willing to sacrifice touches for the good of the team, since that’s not what you typically see out of a No. 1 overall draft pick. But the Suns have discussed how important Ayton truly is when he sprints the floor and forces defenders to send a body at him, and he’s fully on board with that role.

“Teams don’t want to see me dunk it every time, so what I do is just run, man,” he said. “Run to create offense for my teammates. If they stop the big rolling to the rim, there’s shooters open. That’s a thing we always go over. Once that ball’s in the air, we get the ball, we’re out.”

Heading into a must-win for Denver in Game 3 at home, it’s highly unlikely the Suns continue to bottle Jokic up the way they have. Superstars of his caliber find ways to make an impact, and in front of their home crowd, after being publicly called out by their head coach, the Nuggets will put forth their best effort on Friday.

But if Ayton continues to play Jokic relatively even by staying out of foul trouble, doing the little things and maximizing his role, the Suns could very easily close this thing out in four or five games. And if you ask Chris Paul, that’s been more than enough to make DA a pivotal part of Phoenix’s postseason run to this point.

“You can’t ask for more from somebody like him,” Paul said. “He guards, he runs, he rebounds, he does everything. He’s literally been our MVP in the postseason so far.”

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