MILWAUKEE – Chris Paul calls Deandre Ayton the anchor of the Phoenix Suns defense.
With Ayton on the bench for much of the second half, that defense sank.
The 6-foot-11 center’s inability to avoid foul trouble allowed Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks to work their way into the 120-100 Game 3 win against the Suns on Sunday night.
“He’s an important part of our team,” said Paul, the Suns’ All-Star point guard. “He is the anchor of our defense. I feel that any (adverse) team would like it not to be on the pitch in both offensive and defensive phases. “
Phoenix also missed the production of Devin Booker, who shot 3 out of 14 and picked up just 10 points after scoring 27 in Game 1 and 31 in Game 2.
Ayton’s absence showed just how big his presence on the pitch is for the Suns.
The # 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft scored 16 points in the first 14 and a half minutes of Game 3, but took his fourth foul with 10:25 from the end of the third quarter and missed the rest of the period. When he returned, the Bucks had a 22-point lead.
While Ayton was not made available to reporters after the game, his teammates pointed out how much he missed him.
“It was a great moment because they crashed the glass so hard and they are great and really emphasized the physicality in this game,” said Suns forward Cam Johnson. “Deandre does a really great job of bringing that presence to our paint, bouncing the ball, being physical, so it’s definitely hard to get him in trouble.”
Phoenix still holds a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series with Game 4 on Wednesday night in Milwaukee. But the Suns must find a way to slow Antetokounmpo, who has collected at least 40 points and 10 rebounds in each of their last two games.
It’s hard enough to do when Ayton is down. He also had trouble on Sunday night trying to lend a hand against the two-time MVP without being fouled. And when Ayton was on the bench in trouble, Antetokounmpo did pretty much everything he wanted.
“It’s hard, man,” Paul said. “Giannis comes full speed like a running back. He’s trying to get his hands up, but it’s hard. “
After scoring just 10 points in the Suns’ game 2 win, Ayton shot 6 of 7 in the first quarter on Sunday. Ayton’s 16 quick points helped the Suns gain a 36-30 lead early in the second period.
But he only scored two more points for the remainder of the game, finishing with 18 and nine rebounds in less than 25 minutes.
“He had just had a good game, but the foul problem didn’t allow him to continue it,” said Suns manager Monty Williams.
Ayton had done a good job of avoiding foul issues this postseason until Sunday. Williams said he would not complain about the refereeing, but noted that Antetokounmpo had more free throws (17) than the entire Phoenix team (16).
“They have been aggressive and we have to give them credit,” Williams said. “I will not stand here complaining about an aggressive team. But we need to understand how the referees are calling the game and then adjust to that. There is a lot of physicality in the game, sure, but as far as teaching is concerned, we have to watch the movie and see where he can have a better body position and pick up some accusations when they arise. “
Once Ayton caught that fourth foul early in the third quarter, the Suns did some experimenting with their lineup due to their lack of size.
The Suns are already playing without striker Dario Saric, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament in Game 1. Striker Torrey Craig played but did not appear to be full after injuring his right knee in Game 2.
After 7-foot Frank Kaminsky was ineffective, the Suns briefly turned to Abdel Nader, a 6-5 forward who played a total of one minute in the first two games of the final. Sometimes they had 6-6 forward Jae Crowder playing center.
It worked, but the success didn’t last.
The Suns made 12 of their first 14 shots in the third quarter to reduce the 15-point gap at half-time to four. But once they cooled down, the Bucks moved away.
Milwaukee scored the last 16 points of the third quarter to take a 98-76 lead. The Bucks ended up overtaking the Suns 20-2 in second chance points.
“We have enough bodies to get that job done if anyone gets in trouble,” Crowder said. “But tonight it definitely caught us off guard and we had to throw a lot of different things at them, and it led us to scramble and offensive rebounds.”
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