Deandre Ayton returned to the Phoenix Suns starting lineup on Thursday night as the team tipped-off against the New York Knicks. The Big Fella put on a show under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, notching his first-ever 20-20 game and leading the Suns to victory.
After missing 30 of 31 games, Ayton has not only had to regain his in-game endurance, but has also needed to adjust to multiple different roles in Head Coach Monty Williams’ system. Whether it’s starting or as a reserve or at center or at power forward, Ayton has worn many hats over his first seven games back.
But in his eighth game back on Thursday night, Ayton returned to his primary role of starting center and could not have looked more dominant doing so. The 21-year-old did it all from crashing the glass, catching lobs and protecting the rim. Ayton used his size, strength and athleticism all night to control the paint on both ends of the court.
Ayton’s physical tools made him virtually unstoppable as he played above the rim and ultimately notched his first 20-20 game of his young career. He finished the game with a season-high 26 points on a highly efficient 73.3% shooting (11-15) to go along with a career-high 21 rebounds and two blocks.
“In the Garden, that’s pretty cool for him,” Coach Williams said about Ayton’s 20-20 game. “I think he’s at the point now where he can sustain a high level… I’m happy for him. Hopefully we can build on this one.”
It was the first 20-20 game by a Sun since Steve Nash had 21 points and 20 assists at Philadelphia on Nov. 9, 2009. He is also the youngest player in NBA history to record 25+ points and 20+ rebounds at Madison Square Garden (prev. Hakeem Olajuwon in 1985).
“He’s a couple months behind and he’s catching up quick,” Devin Booker said. “The way he defends, the way he runs the floor, how athletic he is, you can’t teach those things. He’s a freak of nature.”
The Big Fella had a little help from his friends in the process as he and Ricky Rubio were in sync all night. Five of Rubio’s season-high 13 assists were to Ayton as the connection between the smooth playmaker and the athletic seven-footer that Suns fans dreamed of in the offseason continues to come to fruition.
Collectively, the Suns had 31 assists with Rubio leading the way and nearly notching a triple-double. After missing the previous game, Rubio stuffed the stat sheet scoring 25 points on 55.5% shooting (10-18) with 13 assists, 8 rebounds, 4 steals and a block.
“He was efficient tonight with his scoring and passing,” Coach Williams said. “He just brings balance to our team. He settles everybody and puts them in their spots. I think the guys trust him.”
Booker continued his All-Star campaign scoring a game-high 29 points to go along with 4 assists, 4 rebounds and a steal. Ten of those points coming in one of the most critical moments in the game.
After a close first half, the Suns only led by six at the break, but then Booker kicked-it up a notch and the rest of the team followed. Booker scored 10 points in just the third quarter as the Suns quickly began putting the game out of reach. They continued this momentum, outscoring the Knicks 63-46 in the second half and finishing the season sweep with a 121-98 victory.
“It was good,” Booker said. “It’s the complete game that we’ve been looking for. Playing hard and defending the full 48 minutes. I’m proud of the team. Everybody contributed. Everybody defended. That’s what happens when we play that way.”
The Suns outrebounded one of the top rebounding teams in the NBA 53-40, while also locking down defensively as they’ve now held three of their last four opponents to under 100 points.
“This is the team that we want to be,” Coach Williams said. “Holding a team under 100 points is really hard and 31 assists is phenomenal. For us to outrebound that team says a lot about our focus and attention to our scouting report… That’s a big time win because of the way we did it.”
The Suns continue on the road as they travel to the other garden in Boston on Saturday to tip-off against the Celtics. Be sure to catch the action on Fox Sports Arizona.