By RENALDO DORSETT
Tribune Sports Reporter
Following successful debuts in their return to basketball, Deandre Ayton’s Phoenix Suns and Buddy Hield’s Sacramento Kings gear up for a playoff push and a race for the final spot in the Western Conference when the NBA officially restarts its season.
The league will resume regular season play today at the Disney Resort’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, but both the Suns and Kings will make their return to the court tomorrow.
The Suns are scheduled to face the Washington Wizards at 4pm while the Kings will take on the San Antonio Spurs at 8pm.
In three scrimmages, Hield led the Kings in scoring at 18.3 points per game. He also added five rebounds and 2.3 assists per game as the team finished 1-2.
Ayton averaged 10.3 points and seven rebounds per game. He also shot 2-2 from three-point range.
The remainder of the Kings’ schedule includes matchups against the Orlando Magic (August 2), Mavericks (August 4), New Orleans Pelicans (August 6), Brooklyn Nets (August 7), Houston Rockets (August 9), Pelicans (August 11), and Los Angeles Lakers (August 13).
The Suns will go on to face the Dallas Mavericks (August 2), Los Angeles Clippers (August 4), Indiana Pacers (August 6), Miami Heat (August 8), Oklahoma City Thunder (August 10), Philadelphia 76ers (August 11) and the Mavericks for a second time (August 13).
The NBA restart will feature the 16 teams currently in playoff position and six teams (five Western, one Eastern) currently within six games of eighth place in each conference. Each team will play eight “seeding games” followed by the traditional playoff format.
In the race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, the Kings are No.10 at 28-36 and 3.5 games behind the No.8 Memphis Grizzlies at 32-33. The Suns are 26-39, six games behind the Grizzlies.
If the No.9 seed is more than four games behind the No.8 seed, No. 8 will make the playoffs. If they are fewer than four games behind, the teams will compete in a play-in tournament for the final spot.
Ayton said the team’s isolation in the bubble at the Disney resort has created a bonding experience.
“I feel like we’re the fastest pace team right now, or one of the fastest paced teams. We have a great pace, we’re not slowing down at all. We’re starting out games pretty strong, no matter how our offence is looking we’re playing defence, we’re very active, talking, communicating, very different from the beginning of my second season and when I came back from the suspension. Very different chemistry as well,” Ayton said.
“Ricky has everybody in their positions on the offensive end and pushing the ball for us. I just feel very comfortable. Being here, we’ve been playing a lot of basketball, we’ve been around each other so it just feels great. On the court, off the court, we’re just a family now.”
In his second NBA season, Ayton is averaging 19 points, 12 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game while shooting 54 per cent from the field in just 30 games. According to Basketball Reference, his player efficiency is ranked at No.35 in the league at 20.5. He was suspended 25 games this season due to a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy.
Through 64 games this season, Hield is averaging 19.8 points per game and is shooting 40 per cent from beyond the arc, making 3.8 three-point field goals in about 10 attempts per game. Hield also added 4.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.
He continues his adjustment from COVID-19 recovery but said the entire league has adjustments to make life under the new restrictions.
“Trying to get my legs under me. I was out the last three weeks but I’ve been putting in extra work in the gym back and forth, just trying to find my groove, get right and be comfortable out there,” he said.
“I’m just happy to be able to hoop. Yea, the fans might normally control the momentum of a game but in this environment, I think you have to be more mentally tough, more mentally locked in.
“You can hear yourself on the court, so the more we talk, the more we communicate the better we can be closing out games and be better defensively, better offensively. We have to be locked in each and every play, every play matters and it’s a different element out there playing but you have to adjust, these are new times we live in.”