The look on Deandre Ayton’s face after he tip-slammed the ball home to give the Phoenix Suns the game-winning basket against the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night could easily reflect how the fan base feels about its burgeoning star.
It was a look of joyful surprise. His facial expression seemed to say two things simultaneously: the first was, “Wow, I just did that!” The second was, “Wow, I just did that?”
The confusion wasn’t because Ayton lacked the confidence to make the alley-oop dunk off the inbounds pass from Jae Crowder with 0.9 seconds left. Instead, Ayton wasn’t sure if the basket counted because the referees were already gathering to try and determine if the basket was good or if there was offensive goaltending.
Officials made the right call because it was not goaltending.
While there were 0.7 seconds left after the slam, Ayton’s bucket gave the Suns a 104-103 win in front of a frenzied home crowd in downtown Phoenix.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the outstanding screen set by Devin Booker on the inbounds play, where he put his busted-up face (possibly a broken nose) and body into Clippers 7-footer Ivica Zubac, preventing the big man from getting to Ayton in time.
So here we are, Ayton is dominating in the playoffs in a way that many Suns faithful thought they would never see. He had 24 points and 14 rebounds. He made 12 of 15 shots. He had the game-winning basket. And the Suns lead the Clippers 2-0 in the Western Conference finals.
Quite the turnaround from how Ayton was viewed heading into this season.
He’s always going to have the Luka Doncic comparison. The Suns had the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft. They chose Ayton, the local guy who played his last couple years of high school ball in Phoenix and then spent one collegiate season in Tucson at the University of Arizona.
Phoenix could have drafted Doncic instead.
Doncic has proven to be the better player. That’s not debatable.
But that’s only because the 22-year-old Slovenian looks like he will be one of the greatest players in NBA history.
However, if Ayton continues on an upward trajectory, it will turn out to be a rare win-win for both teams. The other team being the Dallas Mavericks, who acquired Doncic in a draft-night trade with the Atlanta Hawks.
Ayton, who turns 23 late next month, is having a terrific third season. As I wrote in a column last week, he set career highs in field goal percentage (62.6%), offensive rating, defensive rating and win shares (8.4).
The demanding leadership and tutelage of Chris Paul has been a huge reason for the improvement in Ayton, previously considered somewhat apathetic and resistant to constructive criticism.
But it’s been the playoffs where Ayton has taken off like a rocket. The 7-footer feasted on a Lakers team with an injured Anthony Davis, he held his own with MVP Nikola Jokic of the Nuggets in the second round and has been a dominating presence in the first two games of the conference finals against the Clippers.
He’s averaging 16.3 points and 10.8 rebounds on an otherworldly 72.6% shooting from the field in 12 playoff games. Most of that comes on dunks and layups, and Ayton has been nearly unstoppable when he gets the ball in the paint.
He’s also been more active and effective on defense, a weak point in his game before this season.
This Suns team is thrilling fans and attracting bandwagoners alike because it’s fun.
Look at Ayton on Tuesday night. He was all smiles after the game. He’s having fun. The Suns are on a bit of a magic carpet ride. But it’s not a fluke.
This Phoenix team has the goods to win its first ever NBA title. A lot of work remains to hoist that trophy. But one of the reasons the Suns can win it all is the awakening of a sleeping giant named Deandre Ayton.