The first play of the night was the tell. Deandre Ayton rolled to the hoop after setting a high screen, caught a bounce pass from Chris Paul in stride, blew past a switching Ivica Zubac and then finished with an and-one layup.
Ayton was going to own the paint against Zubac and the Clippers in Game 4.
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“I’m going to be honest, I got outplayed last game,” he said after helping Phoenix take a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference finals with an 84-80 victory Saturday night. “Zubac did a great job of controlling the glass and being a presence on both ends of the floor. It was up to me to get in front of that or compete with that or challenge that.”
The Phoenix big man followed through on a pledge to be “relentless” both ends.
He bought extra possessions with nine offensive rebounds. He finished with a career-high 22 boards to go with four blocks in his 41 minutes. He stayed aggressive to the basket, including this finger roll off a Paul lob.
Paul knew Ayton would have that mindset, because, he said, Ayton told him at shootaround that he would take care of the paint.
“I said, ‘All right, big fella, you’ve got it.'” Paul said.
After his two-way effort Saturday, the 22-year-old Ayton is averaging 20.3 points, 13.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in the conference finals. He’s shooting .709 from the field for the playoffs.
“To see his growth, I get goosebumps,” Paul said.
Paul provided a big assist to that development. The two players clashed early but have gone on to form a potent pick-and-roll tandem. There is mutual respect now. Ayton, drafted first overall by the Suns in 2018, appreciates how Paul pushes him in a way that no other teammate has. He says teaming up with CP3 was “the best thing that happened to my career.”
And Paul enjoys seeing Ayton succeed as the Suns move closer and closer to the NBA Finals.
“I genuinely love him, the person he is, and to see everything that’s coming to him — a national audience getting to see who he is and why he’s the No. 1 pick — I couldn’t be happier for him,” Paul said.