Why Deandre Ayton and the Suns present a far greater challenge to Luka Doncic than Rudy Gobert and the Jazz

Why Deandre Ayton and the Suns present a far greater challenge to Luka Doncic than Rudy Gobert and the Jazz post thumbnail image

There is something about facing the same opponent over and over in the NBA that breeds annoyance and contempt. It might lead to post-victory gloating that can be taken either as unsavory or tongue-in-cheek fun, depending on your perspective.

After a messy and exciting six-game conquest of the Utah Jazz in the first round, Dallas Mavericks coach Jason Kidd could not resist needling Hassan Whiteside and Rudy Gobertperhaps shoveling the last bit of dirt on the GobertDonovan Mitchell partnership.

In discussing the challenges of defending the Phoenix Suns‘ offense — essentially tied for No. 3 in points per possession during the regular season — Kidd noted all the different ways the Suns can score.

“This isn’t Gobert or Whiteside,” Kidd told a scrum of reporters. “These guys can put the ball in the basket.”

(While we’re here: It is a remarkable achievement of shot-making and turnover avoidance that the Suns ranked so highly in offense given their old-school shot selection and general statistical tendencies. Phoenix ranked dead last in shots at the rim and 25th in 3-point attempts. Yeah, we know that: They are midrange deities. They also ranked 29th in free throw rate and 21st in offensive rebounding, meaning they got no freebies and very few second chances. They were a first-shot, only-shot offense, and almost a league-high 42% of those shots were midrangers. To sniff the No. 1 spot in total offense with that overall profile in the year of our basketball gods 2022 is a triumph in efficiency bordering on the impossible.)

Kidd was ribbing, but he was also onto something.

For the second straight season, a team fresh off eliminating the Jazz by going supersmall — with five shooters and several ball handlers on the floor at once — was about to run into Deandre Ayton. Last season, it was the LA Clippers in the Western Conference finals; Ayton averaged 18 points and 14 rebounds on 69% shooting in Phoenix’s six-game victory.

Now, it’s the Mavs’ turn. Ayton proved Kidd prophetic in Game 1 of these conference semifinals, flipping in 25 points on 12-of-20 shooting — continuing perhaps the best and most consequential scoring run of his career.

With Devin Booker out for Games 3, 4, and 5 of the Suns’ first-round series against the No. 8 seed New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix needed more from Ayton — needed him to be more like the high-volume post scorer and jump-shooter he might have envisioned himself as when Phoenix selected him No. 1 overall (over the Mavs’ Luka Doncic, among others) in 2018.

Part of Ayton’s appeal was the breadth of his skill on offense. He could turn into whatever kind of center he and (most pointedly) the Suns wanted him to be: pick-and-pop 3-point gunner; elbow passing ace; pick-and-roll rim runner; post-up hub; or some combination of all those, able to emphasize whatever element his team needed at any moment.

Chris Paul‘s arrival in Ayton’s third season settled the matter: Ayton would become a high-volume screen setter, rolling hard to the rim over and over after setting brick wall picks for Paul and Booker. Sometimes Ayton would get the ball for alley-oops, layups, and soft-touch floaters. But his main job was to free Paul and Booker for midrange looks, and draw in the defense — unlocking open 3s for Phoenix’s spot-up threats.

Ayton bought in, subsuming any ambitions of ball-dominant scoring in the name of winning. He refocused on defense, transforming himself almost completely on that end in two short seasons — improving more between Year 1 and Year 3 than almost any big man in recent memory.

But he never lost his ball skills — never stopped working on turnaround jumpers, push shots, jump hooks, catching and turning against switches. Any team hoping to win four playoff series needs to shape-shift — to tap into scoring methods beyond its foundational identity. Some opponents would require the Suns to once again ask more of Ayton.

The Clippers provided the first major high-stakes test in last season’s conference finals. They tried to mimic their anti-Jazz game plan: Play five perimeter guys, switch everything on defense, drag Ayton out of the paint on the other end, and drive and kick the Suns into submission. The Clippers understood the risks. They also knew switching on defense was the best and probably only way of neutering Phoenix’s pick-and-roll game; Booker and Paul wouldn’t be able to walk into long 2s the way they can against dropback centers.

As the Clippers feared, they discovered two major differences between the ecosystems in Utah and Phoenix: Ayton could punish switches in ways Gobert seemingly could not, and the Suns had enough confidence in Ayton to throw him the ball. (Gobert’s defense has not really been the problem against supersmall, 5-out opponents. The real issue has been Utah’s leaky perimeter defense, and Gobert’s inability to hurt small-ball lineups on the other end — aside from the occasional offensive rebound.)

Kidd probably didn’t need any reminders of Ayton’s skill. In those three games Booker missed against New Orleans, Ayton averaged 23 points on 68% shooting. He made difficult shots — face-up jumpers in isolation, fadeaways in the post, burrowing jump hooks. He made other difficult shots look easy, including those pogo-stick floaters in the paint on pick-and-rolls. In the playoffs, Ayton has hit 60% of long 2s and 66% from floater range, per Cleaning The Glass.

The Suns might not have survived that series with a league-average center in Ayton’s place. Paul and Booker might make Bismack Biyombo look good in the regular season, but take one of those stars away against a dialed-in playoff defense and the gap between Ayton and Joe Center suddenly feels like a Grand Canyon-sized chasm. Phoenix is plus-21 in 119 postseason minutes when Paul and Ayton are on the floor without Booker; they logged only 266 such minutes in the entire regular season.

One set that has appeared across both Mavericks series already highlights what Kidd was talking about. Almost every Dallas playoff opponent takes aim at Doncic’s defense. They hunt him down, run him through pick-and-rolls, and yank him into uncomfortable mismatches. It is a way to prey on Doncic’s so-so defense, and to perhaps wear him down so he might be fatigued when the Mavs need some fourth-quarter Luka magic.

The challenge is that Dallas often stashes Doncic on the weakest opposing player. Sure, you can have that guy screen for your ballhandling star and hope Doncic switches. He probably won’t, though. Instead, he’ll slide over to help briefly, abandoning his assignment for a couple of seconds to contain a greater threat. He and the Mavs aren’t really worried if Doncic’s original guy — say, Royce O’Neale or Jae Crowder — catches a kickout pass with some airspace. Those guys are not high-level playmakers or major scoring threats; the Mavs are confident they can snuff those little brush fires with some elementary help-and-recover defense.

And if they fail — if those guys beat you with playmaking — you tip your cap and move on to the next possession.

Dallas’ opponents try to wring more out of these Doncic-hunting expeditions by spicing things up — adding more layers that might confuse the Mavs’ defense. Utah ran this one quite a bit in the first round:

Doncic’s guy — O’Neale — screens for Mike Conley, but that’s not it. O’Neale then runs behind a flare screen from Utah’s center — Whiteside above. That second screen introduces more chances for the Mavs to mess up, or switch themselves into a lopsided size mismatch.

And look what the Mavs do against that three-man action: They switch all of it, including Doncic onto Whiteside. They simply aren’t worried about Utah throwing the ball into Whiteside, even though Whiteside has a soft touch and has at times in his career been a workable post scorer against mismatches. Maybe they know the Jazz, not exactly overflowing with pinpoint entry passers, won’t dare the long-distance lob to Whiteside. Regardless, Utah has to reset and pivot into something else.

Here’s the same set involving Gobert in Game 6 of the first round, and if you want to pinpoint the second the Mitchell-Gobert era (probably) ended, you could do a lot worse than this:

There were several other instances of Doncic switching onto Gobert in this action, and the Jazz just looking the other way.

And here’s Phoenix busting out the identical action in Game 1 on Monday:

Yeah. Doncic switches from Crowder to Ayton, and that happens.

For the season, Phoenix scored 1.13 points per possession when Ayton shot out of a post-up or dished to a teammate who fired — 11th among 82 players with at least 50 post touches, per Second Spectrum.

And that’s despite a post game that is a little predictable in some ways, and leans too far toward finesse. Ayton rarely draws fouls on post-ups, or in general; he averages only 2.4 free throw attempts per game, and often defaults to fading or spinning away from the basket. He shoots on about 80% of his post-ups that lead to the end of possessions — the second-highest shot rate among those 82 players with at least 50 post touches, behind only Marvin Bagley III, per Second Spectrum.

But Ayton has been superefficient anyway. He hasn’t really needed to pass much from the post. The four Suns around him are so good, teams are cautious to swarm him.

Through seven games, New Orleans and now Dallas have had no answers for the Suns’ offense — and that’s despite Phoenix going mostly cold from deep. The reappearance of one Jazz play in Game 1 of this series gives a window into one reason why.

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