Deandre Ayton mitigating Denver Nuggets MVP Nikola Jokic’s edge
In Game 1, Ayton and Jokic both played exactly 36 minutes and 25 seconds. In Game 2, that mirroring tactic was in jeopardy early but hardly faltered as Ayton continued to corral the MVP.
Take the Nikola Jokic-Deandre Ayton matchup as the prime and principal example. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise to see the Nuggets offense running through Jokic — now the newly-minted MVP of the league and their point guard, for all intents and purposes — and for Ayton, the more the merrier. It’s a test, for one, guarding the league’s best player, a center with a plethora of spins and shimmies that can give him room to create with little to no space. But it’s also, apparently, one he’s studied for, and one that he’s prepared to ace.
In Game 1, Suns’ coach Monty Williams never let Ayton miss a moment with Jokic on the floor; it was almost as if he tied a string to Ayton and had Ayton tie the other end to Jokic, so anytime the Serbian center stood up to check into the game, the young Sun knew to do the same. Both played 36 minutes and 25 seconds exactly, a feat of mastery that in and of itself might warrant calling Williams losing Coach of the Year to Tom Thibodeau a “robbery.”
Game 2 began a different story. Ayton picked up two fouls within the first five minutes of play, both of which were somewhat careless and avoidable. But Williams never went away from his on-a-string approach; Ayton rectified the discipline that was his short-term calling card in Game 1 and didn’t pick up a single foul for the rest of the game. He didn’t mirror Jokic exactly, but their playing time still only differed by a matter of minutes.
Ayton has learned how to stay on the floor by way of his stalwart, ever-deterrent defense, which he has maintained all while recording a total of three fouls in the series. In Game 1, he contested 12 two-point shots and four three-pointers (a whopping and game-high 16), holding the six players he defended to a combined field goal percentage of 32.3, per NBA tracking data.
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In Game 2, he contested 15 shots (10 twos and five threes), and though those he defended shot a combined 47 percent from the field, two 100-percent shooting outliers (Monte Morris and Facundo Campazzo) skew that average. Take it from Jokic, who after shooting 5-of-14 when guarded by Ayton on Monday night, admitted that he gave him problems. Upon hearing that, the third-year center naturally replied, “Wow he said that? That’s lit.”
Compare Ayton’s discipline to that of Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic, who was the primary defender on Jokic for much of their first-round series, and who fouled out of half the games in that series. For the most part, he was unable to deter Jokic from scoring at will unless he fouled him, and when he inevitably landed on the bench due to foul trouble or due to the fact that he’d tallied too many to return at all, Jokic could go to work.
The Trail Blazers outscored the Denver Nuggets by 45 points when Nurkic was on the court but were 53 points in the red when he was on the bench. Through two games, the Suns have garnered a +29 advantage in Ayton’s minutes. They say the best ability is availability; Ayton is providing evidence as to why.
But wait! There’s more! It’s the simplest takeaway of them all, in fact. Jokic had 22 points and nine rebounds in the first game, a fine effort for a secondary star, but a disappointing outing for an MVP. Ayton had 20 points and 10 rebounds. In Game 2, Jokic was better, but not nuclear — he had 24 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists compared to Ayton’s 15 and 10. For the most part, that’s a wash. For Phoenix, a wash is a win.