Land of the Rising Suns!

Ayton, Suns headed to the playoffs; team ends 11-year drought

Bahamian DeAndre Ayton was 11 years old and still living in The Bahamas when the Phoenix Suns (44-18) last went to the National Basketball Association (NBA) postseason, but now at 22 and the starting center for the Suns, he has helped that franchise end that 11-year drought. The Suns took down a key Western Conference rival, the Los Angeles Clippers (43-21), 109-101, at the Phoenix Suns Arena in Phoenix, Arizona, on Wednesday night, booking their tickets for the playoffs.

Ayton finished the night with five points and a game-high 11 boards. It was a shooting night that the Bahamian may want to forget as he went 2-for-8 from the field and split a pair of free throws. However, the playoff-clinching victory is what matters for the Bahamian and the Suns right now. He added two assists and two steals in the 27 minutes he had on the floor.

The last time the Suns made the playoffs was 2010 when they had Steve Nash as their point guard and Amar’e Stoudemire as one of the starting forwards. Nash is now the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets and Stoudemire is his player development assistant. It was the second-longest active playoff drought in the league and also tied for the fifth longest all-time in the league. The Sacramento Kings, for which fellow Bahamian Chavano “Buddy” Hield plays, own the longest playoff drought of 14 seasons. 

The win for the Suns on Wednesday night marked the first time for the season that they were able to defeat the Clippers. They lost the season series two games to one – a series which had its share of chippiness, hard fouls, technical fouls, flagrant fouls and even ejections. A playoffs series between these two teams could provide must-watch television quality for the league.

Both of Ayton’s made field goals came in the first quarter. His first shot came at the 6:29 mark when he made a putback layup to put his team up 17-13. His second shot came 23 seconds later when he converted a cutting layup that gave his team a 19-16 lead.

The Suns led 39-31 at the end of the first quarter, fighting off a 15-point scoring onslaught from Paul George who torched them in their previous two matchups. Ayton was active in that quarter with four points, four rebounds and a steal.

The Suns had their biggest lead of the game, 14 points, in the second quarter, taking a 53-39 lead on a Mikal Bridges’ three-point play with 7:17 remaining. At the end of that quarter, the Suns held a 10-point lead, 63-53.

The Clippers came within four points at the 1:05 mark of the third quarter, 82-78. The Suns ended the quarter up 86-80, paving the way for a dramatic fourth quarter.

Third-year player Ayton did not attempt a shot in the fourth quarter but pulled down four rebounds and had a plus-minus stat line of plus-10 in that quarter. The Clippers got to within one point twice in the quarter – the final one coming at the 6:08 mark with the Suns ahead 93-92.

That lead quickly grew to seven points with the Suns taking a 101-94 lead with 3:31 remaining in the game. Chris Paul scored all eight of those points by himself during that stretch for the Suns. He had 15 in the quarter. It was the knockout punch that the Suns needed as the Clippers, who never led in the game, had no answer.

The Suns outrebounded the Clippers 45-36 including a 15-5 advantage on the offensive glass. The Suns had 15 second chance points compared to 10 for the Clippers.

With one game left to play in the month of April, Ayton is averaging 15.4 points and 10.3 rebounds per game this month. On the defensive side, he is averaging 1.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The big man is shooting 65.8 percent from the field this month and is averaging just above 31 minutes per contest.

In the big picture, Ayton is averaging 14.8 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game in the 62 games he has played this season. He is shooting 62 percent from the field – a career high.

The Suns have won 11 games this month and lost just four. They are one of two teams in the Western Conference of the NBA that has clinched a playoff spot – the other is the conference and league-leading Utah Jazz (45-17). The Suns are one game behind the Jazz and now have a two-game cushion between them and the third-place Clippers.

Ayton and the Suns will play host to the Jazz tonight as they look to shake things up at the top of the Western Conference. Tip-off is set for 10 p.m.

Hield was also in action on Wednesday night but he and the Kings got turned back emphatically by the Jazz, 154-105, at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California.

Hield finished tied for a team-high with 18 points and added seven assists and five rebounds. Defensively, he finished with three blocks and two steals. He shot 50 percent from the field, going 6-for-12 including 3-for-6 from deep.

The Kings kept close to the Jazz by the end of the first quarter, 30-27, but an 86-47 combined second and third quarter advantage made the difference in the game.

The Grand Bahamian played all 12 minutes in the third quarter but was kept out of the game in the fourth for obvious reasons – the Jazz were already up 116-74 by the end of the third quarter.

With 10 games left in the season, Hield still sits in second in the league in made three-pointers with 245. The Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry is still ahead of him with 278 made three-pointers. Sitting in third place is the Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard with 227 made three-pointers.

Hield is averaging 16.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game this season. He is averaging a career high four made three-pointers per game. He is shooting 41 percent from the field and 39.3 percent from deep on the season, and is averaging a career-high 34.2 minutes per contest.

They Kings will start a four-game road trip tonight with a matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. That game will be broadcasted live on NBATV and tips off at 10.30 p.m.

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Simba French

Simba joined The Nassau Guardian in 2012 as a technical producer for Guardian Radio 96.9 FM. He joined the Editorial Department as a sports reporter in 2018. Simba has covered a wide range of sports stories, including the 2018 CARIFTA in Nassau, Bahamas. Education: College of the Bahamas, BA Media Journalism

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