LOS ANGELES — Deandre Ayton held back on celebrating, in case he had committed a “blooper” instead of an improbable game-winner. He had grabbed a pinpoint inbounds pass from Jae Crowder and plopped it into the basket while airborne in 0.2 seconds, so quickly that he could not even explain when the ball or his hands were on the rim.
“I wasn’t too sure what I did,” Ayton said. “I wasn’t too sure if it counted. … I was just so anxious. I was really stressed. It was a lot. I’m looking at the fans. I’m looking at the environment. It was a lot.”
After the lengthy officials’ review, the crowd’s roar upon confirmation that his finish was legal and the endless hugs from teammates and coaches, Ayton emphatically agreed when asked if that was the best play of his life. The “Valley-oop” to beat the Los Angeles Clippers 104-103 to take a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals is already an iconic moment in Phoenix Suns history.
It was also the latest reminder that Ayton’s consistent — and often dominant — play unfolding bit-by-bit for a championship contender during this electrifying postseason run has rapidly vaulted him into the conversation surrounding the NBA’s top-tier centers.
“Every game really feels like my last,” Ayton said. “I’ve never played so hard from the jump ball to the end, 150 percent. Usually it’s like 110, but it’s 150 percent. And its 150 percent mentally, just the level of focus and the things you have to really pay attention to.
“It’s really intense, and (when) fatigue and stuff like that kicks in, especially, that’s when we know who really got your back and who’s locked in — and this team is it.”
Ayton’s 72.6 field-goal percentage on at least 100 attempts is the best by any NBA player over a 12-game span in the playoffs during the shot-clock era, according to Elias Sports Bureau. That efficiency has come from a bevy of athletic, authoritative dunks — including a soaring alley-oop slam from Crowder earlier in Tuesday’s game that foreshadowed what would come later — mixed in with soft-touch jumpers.
Ayton is also grabbing 10.8 rebounds per game, helping him record eight double-doubles in those 12 playoff contests. Additionally, teammates praise Ayton for his more nuanced contributions, such as setting sharp screens in the pick and roll, running the floor hard, boxing out so others can snag rebounds and communicating as the anchor of a Suns defense that has been the NBA’s second-most efficient unit in the playoffs entering Thursday (106.5 points allowed per 100 possessions).
During the Western Conference Semifinals against the Denver Nuggets, All-Star point guard Chris Paul said Ayton has “literally been our MVP in the postseason so far.”
“I can’t say enough about DA and what he does for our team,” Paul added. “He does all the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet. … He’s so selfless, man, and we’re on him a lot. But he’s showing you why he is who he is.”
Ayton’s performances have largely occurred against challenging matchups.
He regularly guarded Anthony Davis prior to his groin injury in the first round against the Los Angeles Lakers, helping hold him to 5-of-16 shooting in Game 1. Ayton made things tough over three-plus games on Denver’s Nikola Jokic, who received his NBA Most Valuable Player trophy during the series and later gave Ayton his jersey featuring the handwritten message “U ARE (A) BEAST!!! KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!!!”
Williams called Game 2 of that Nuggets series a “huge growth moment” for Ayton, who committed two quick fouls, settled his heated frustration on the bench and came back to total 15 points and 10 rebounds without fouling again. Now in this series against the Clippers, their small-ball lineups are providing opportunity for Ayton to show how he can use his defensive footwork and lateral quickness when needed while still protecting the rim.
“I feel like he flipped the switch and he turned it on,” All-Star guard Devin Booker said of Ayton’s play. “He doesn’t want to look back, and he feels his confidence is there. He understands how much of a force he is, and I think he’s figuring out his capabilities.”
Former top-overall draft picks are always scrutinized, especially when All-Stars Luka Dončić and Trae Young were also part of Ayton’s 2018 class. Ayton has received outside criticism about his motor and engagement throughout his career, with some wondering if those inconsistencies would forever hold him back from reaching the potential his size and athleticism would provide.
Yet Williams has long emphasized patience with Ayton’s development, leaning on his experience working with a young Anthony Davis in New Orleans and LaMarcus Aldridge as an assistant in Portland as examples that it generally takes frontcourt players longer to adapt to the NBA level.
The leap has arrived. And Ayton’s success on this stage can be traced back to incremental improvements to his daily work habits.
He acknowledges that, in the past, he may not have come to the facility on an off day and once had to turn his car around on the highway when Williams asked why he left a summer treatment session at the arena before checking in with him. Now, Ayton has adopted Williams’ daily “smell the gym” philosophy, while the coach has noticed Ayton implementing elements of Paul’s rigorous training regimen into his routine.
“I constantly want to just sharpen my screws and just be the best I can be,” Ayton said. “Knowing the type of level and the type of play style we have to come in with night-in and night-out and to be consistent at what I do, I have to be in the gym.
“Just to see the results now at a high level and where we’re at right now, I don’t want to get out of the gym.”
Added Williams: “I just didn’t expect him, as young as he is, to be as locked in (as he is). He’s been listening to Chris and all of our older guys when it comes to the experience, the playoff mentality.”
Additionally, when Ayton studied film as a rookie, he “was just really scared of the matchups, for real.” Now, those clips are his “favorite TV show,” dissecting opponent tendencies and critiquing his own play.
Aiding that development is Ayton’s consistent willingness to absorb candid feedback from teammates.
Early in the Suns’ stay in the Orlando Bubble last summer, for example, Ayton and Booker sat face-to-face for a real-talk conversation he said made his stomach hurt and ended with “Bro, we’re gonna have to wake up and change what people think about us.” Being Paul’s partner in the pick and roll means the point guard is always in Ayton’s ear about minute details such as where and how long to set a screen and the angles to take on the roll and in transition.
“It’s just my instinct to just be humble and listen,” Ayton said back in January. “Anyone can teach me something. That’s why I learn. That’s the person who I am, where somebody else will say something and I’ll respect it and I’ll try to understand. …
“Nothing really hurts my feelings. It’s just me breaking down what the message is and trying to accomplish what the instruction is.”
The 22-year-old Ayton still has a goofy earnestness in his personality. Consider his ritual at the end of his pregame warm-up routine, when he stands at midcourt and heaves an underhand, granny-style shot at the hoop and runs of the court in delight when if falls through the net. Or after Game 3 of the Nuggets series, when Ayton’s eyes widened as he marveled at Jokic’s 32-point, 20-rebound triple-double and responded with “I tried” when a reporter pointed out it took 29 shots for the MVP to reach that point total.
Yet Ayton also now has the responsibility of being a father to a 3-month old boy who shares his name. He woke up ahead of Sunday’s Game 1 to a 7 a.m. text from Paul wishing him a happy Father’s Day, and it took a bit for the weight of that message to click.
Two days later, Ayton kept his game-worn jersey to give to baby Deandre as a keepsake that can remind them both of what the Valley-oop — and this playoff run — has meant for Ayton’s career and his team moving closer to the NBA Finals.
“Some people might say I ain’t did nothing or I ain’t won nothing,” Ayton said, “but that one meant something to me.”