The Phoenix Suns are one game away from their first NBA Finals appearance this century after grinding out an ugly win against the Los Angeles Clippers last night to go up 3-1. Deandre Ayton is a huge part of the reason why. The third-year big man has been outstanding these playoffs and last night was merely a reminder, as Ayton notched 19 points and 22 rebounds while playing 41 minutes.
The whole playoff run has frankly been a revelation for the high-flying center. It was easy before to consider Ayton the forgotten man of the high-profile 2018 draft, what with Luka Doncic and Trae Young both rising to borderline MVP status in merely three seasons. Nobody doubted Ayton's importance to the Suns, especially this season, but his averages pale in comparison to his draftmates and the unglamorous life of setting quality screens and consistently contesting at the rim is not one that propels a player into the spotlight.
Ayton has been irreplaceable during this playoff run, though. He's averaging 16.6 points per game on an astounding 70 percent shooting from the floor to go along with 11.4 rebounds in 35.4 minutes per contest. Most importantly, he has been immaculate defensively. The first two rounds featured incredibly tough big man matchups against Anthony Davis and MVP Nikola Jokic. Ayton didn't shut either down, because you can't really shut down players of that caliber. But he did as good of a job as possible and played winning basketball. This round against the Clippers, Ayton's athleticism has shone as the Clippers have been unable to run him off the floor with small lineups as they did to Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert merely one series prior.
In short, Ayton has played his role perfectly. He scores when he has the chance in the restricted area, he hits enough jumpers to keep the opposing centers honest around the free-throw line, and has been irreplaceable defensively. His level of play has been so high that we've gone four paragraphs before mentioning his game-winning dunk in Game 2 of the WCF that will go down as one of the best in postseason history.
It's great news for Ayton's bank account, too. He's eligible for a max extension this offseason. Before the playoffs, it was very much in question if he would be worth that kind of money. The value of centers has never been lower and no NBA champion has featured a true center like the Suns are since... the Lakers with Andrew Bynum? Even last year's big Lakers team had Davis at the five and he's a power forward during the regular season. The rise of Draymond Green types combined with the three-point revolution has spelled the death of a big man like Ayton.
But his playoff performance thus far has hammered home how valuable that kind of player can be, even in today's league. Ayton's presence means the Suns can't go five-out, but that doesn't matter if you have the right kind of team to surround him. Regardless of how far the Suns go and how big of a role Ayton plays in their success or failure, he's proven his worth. Chris Paul knows it, too.
The Suns can offer Ayton a $168 million deal after the season's end. They will definitely do so now, and Ayton will sign it. He's earned it. Phoenix is set up for contention for a while with the Ayton-Booker duo as its center. They're a blast to watch, and thanks to Ayton elevating his game when it matters most, he'll be compensated very well for his services.