Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) shoots as Sacramento Kings guard Tyrese Haliburton (0) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Thursday, April 15, 2021, in Phoenix.(AP Photo/Matt York)
PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns are a great team. That’s the foundation. It’s right there in front of you.
But if you take a closer look, you’ll see that there are extra layers and supporting pieces being added to that foundation throughout the second half of the season. It’s a crucial element for contenders to have in the last two months, continuing to get better before the games that really matter get underway.
The biggest addition the Suns could have made was an improved Deandre Ayton, and that’s what they’ve been getting for the past few weeks, including in Thursday’s 122-114 win over the Sacramento Kings where Ayton was ultimately the difference.
Ayton had 10 of his 26 points and four of his 10 rebounds in the fourth quarter, and he didn’t even check in until there was 4:57 left. With Sacramento down four at that point, Ayton scored on an alley-oop pass from Devin Booker, an offensive rebound two possessions later and on two free throws another two possessions later.
That had Phoenix leading by eight with 2:36 remaining, and the Kings decided the only other potential answer to Ayton was going small. The next trip down for the Suns, Ayton grabbed another Suns miss to shoot free throws. With a seven-point lead and under two minutes to go from there, Phoenix went to Ayton in the post, and Ayton delivered a jumper that effectively ended the game.
“I was really happy for DA to be the guy down the stretch,” head coach Monty Williams said.
The Kings stayed close in the game almost all night thanks to a below-average night defensively for Phoenix and some good shot-making throughout. Sacramento’s defense was dreadful at some stages and the Suns shot 55.8% on the night to counter the Kings’ 55.1% number, with 14 made three-pointers for each team. In a way, it felt like another game where the Suns were playing both down and up to their competition.
While Ayton was getting it done offensively, he and the defense got key stops to keep the Kings at bay enough while the big fella ended the game on the other end.
“We just gutted out a win,” Williams said. “We’re gonna look at this at the end of the season — it won’t say pretty win or ugly win, it’ll just say win and I’m glad we got it.”
Ayton was 10-of-11 from the field, checking those boxes of being active on the offensive glass and doing his part defensively as the anchor. Booker added 23 points while it was another strong night for the bench with 42 points as a whole. Jevon Carter led the way there with 13 points, while a starting Chris Paul dished out 11 assists to go with 13 points.
Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox (27 points) and Buddy Hield (24) combined for 51 points.
To get back on the subject of a team’s evolution in the regular season, here’s what Paul had to say when asked, with the postseason in mind, what it means for Ayton to have moments like Thursday when he was “the guy” down the stretch:
“I think it’s big for all of us. These games right here just build confidence and build trust,” Paul said. “That’s what it comes down to in the playoffs. Sometimes, you’re going to go to a play or you’re going to go to a guy (and) they may make or miss a shot, but one thing about it is trust.
“It’s trust, and when you have games like this from all the guys on our team, right now you’re just building trust so when you get in those moments you live with what happens.”
And here’s what Ayton had to say when asked about building that trust lately:
“After the game, I’m in the locker room, I just whispered to [Paul] and gave him a dap — I was like, ‘Appreciate you trusting me my G,’” Ayton said. “Just trusting in me, knowing your teammate believes in you. (Paul said) take your time. [Paul] taught me down the stretch just to be poised.
“As I start to get my way down low, teams are starting to adjust and adapt, starting to double, so he just wants me to take my time in long stretches like that and see the game. Sometimes I’m just fighting the clock instead of trying to score every time. Just learning the aspects of the game and what’s important and what to look for in crunch time.”
Imagine a Suns team in the postseason that can turn to Ayton down the stretch if need be. That’s a thought that will make Suns fans salivate while potentially being a startling, unsettling development for the rest of the league.