SEASON HIGH DOUBLE DOUBLE: Suns centre Deandre Ayton, far right, is congratulated by Mikal Bridges (25), Cameron Johnson (23) and Devin Booker (1), not in picture, after hitting a free throw during the second half against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night in Houston.
(AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
By RENALDO DORSETT
Tribune Sports Reporter
Following a week of postponements and three missed games due to the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols, Deandre Ayton continued to play his best basketball of the season once the Phoenix Suns returned to the court.
Ayton finished with 26 points, 17 rebounds - both season highs - and a career-high five blocks in a 109-103 win over the Houston Rockets at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas, on Wednesday night.
He shot an efficient 11-15 from the field and also added three assists.
“I think I did what I was supposed to do tonight, it’s just that as a whole team we were all locked in and we finished that game down the stretch,” Ayton said.
“I’m not worried about the hype and what people have to say. I just have to consistently do it over and over and over.”
His rim protection was a particular point of emphasis on Wednesday night. Reserve point guard Cameron Payne noted that perimeter players are able to be more aggressive and take chances defensively knowing that Ayton serves as the anchor and rim protector.
“It’s a lot of responsibility and you have to have consistency every night just to show your teammates that you got their back,” he said.
“Trust just ain’t something you give somebody. That responsibility, you have to earn it. On this team, I’m proud to be that anchor. I’m proud to take on that challenge,” Ayton said.
“Just be there for my guys. That’s the main thing: I’m there for my brother. That’s all it is for me. That’s the pride and dignity that I have in it. I’m not gonna let that guy beat up on my brother. And I know if I help then my brother got my back.”
Following a January 11 game against the Washington Wizards, the Suns had games against the Atlanta Hawks, Golden State Warriors and Indiana Pacers postponed.
They returned on January 18 in a 108-104 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies where Ayton had 18 points and a previous season high 16 rebounds.
“We just had to make sure we were on top of our conditioning. We tried to get in a practice here and there and do our professional things, but at the end of the day, we’re professionals. The NBA never stops, it just postpones so you just have to be ready any day, that’s not just the NBA, that’s the new world, you just have to adjust,” he said, “This team is solid and we are going to stay on top of each other to make sure that we’re good and we can play games.”
The Suns are currently 8-5, No.4 in the Western Conference and are expected to contend for a playoff spot. Despite the addition of Chris Paul, many pundits said the Suns’ progression will hinge on the continued progression of its franchise centre - the No.1 pick in the 2018 draft.
“Since I’ve been in the league I’ve been waiting for this type of pressure, I needed to feel something, and I love it,” Ayton said, “I love this type of pressure. I love the feeling of everyone depending on me, it just makes me that player I’m supposed to be every night. If it helps my team I’ll do whatever to get a win for my team.”
The Rockets scored early in the fourth quarter to cut the Suns’ once sizeable lead to five, 89-84. Ayton scored 10 of the Suns’ final 20 points on a final run to put the game away. His offensive versatility was also on display as his 11 field goals attempts included three alley oop finishes, two tip-ins, two long range jumpers, two created shots off the dribble and two dunks via dump offs.
“He was a monster for us tonight,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said, “Anytime he can have that effect on the defensive end it just gives us a lot of juice. When he was able to block (Victor) Oladipo’s shot on those drives, I thought it just gave our team a ton of energy, to know that we can play aggressive defense and then you got somebody like that behind you that can cover it up. He also gave us 26 points and was efficient and gave us six offensive rebounds, getting those extra possessions when you don’t shoot as well from the three point line. He anchors the defensive in a number of ways - being able to switch out on smaller guys, distracting and blocking shots and we hope he understands that he can be that kind of player every single night.”
The Suns host the Denver Nuggets tonight at 10pm local time as Ayton looks to continue his double double streak.
“The best players in this league, they do it night after night. Not just once every few games,” Suns point guard Chris Paul said. “So we’re going to keep pushing him.”