NBA Finals 2021

NBA Finals 2021: Deandre Ayton is the mismatch nightmare that makes Phoenix Suns pick-and-roll unstoppable

The Phoenix Suns took care of business in Game 1 of the NBA Finals in the exact way you would have guessed: maximizing the pick-and-roll and taking advantage of the midrange out of that set.

With two pick-and-roll and midrange maestros in Chris Paul and Devin Booker, the Suns have been able to pick teams apart all postseason by targeting mismatches and attacking them over, and over, and over again, keeping opposing coaches up at night, trying to devise a plan to stop the bleeding.

As evidence of Paul's 32 points and nine assists and Booker's 27 points and six assists, the Milwaukee Bucks will need to go back to the drawing board in Game 2. But for all the credit the All-Star tandem deserves, rising star centre Deandre Ayton is the key that makes Phoenix's most frequent playtype so dangerous.

Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer knew Phoenix would look to exploit Brook Lopez in pick-and-rolls often, but he had to worry about more than just a clunkier big man being switched on to two of the most prolific playmakers in the league.

He needed a plan in place for the player that switched on to the super athletic, 6-foot-11 roll man in Ayton.

For Game of Thrones fans, remember the weapon Arya Stark had crafted for the battle against the Army of the Dead? A double-edged staff that could pull apart into two separate daggers, one for each hand. That's what the Suns pick-and-roll offence reminds me of.

If Paul and Booker are the sharp dragon glass edges on each end of the staff, Ayton is the equally lethal third option, giving the offence a dagger in each hand.

According to NBA stats' playtype data, Ayton has been the most unstoppable roll man in the playoffs, leading all players (by far) with 100 total points as a roller while scoring at an unfathomable efficiency of 81.8 percent (45-55 FG) from the field ranking him in the 100th percentile. For reference, the next-closest roll-man point total to Ayton is MVP Nikola Jokic, who scored 61 points on 49 attempts (53.1%), and Clint Capela, who scored 60 points on 38 attempts (73.7%).

So how would the Bucks try and cut off Ayton's production while also containing Paul or Booker on switches? They tried matching up PJ Tucker on Paul and Jrue Holiday on Booker to keep a stout and physical defender on Ayton once the switch came, but with Tucker and Holiday giving up at least six inches of height, Ayton still had his way inside.

Whether it was a simple seal for a post-up and baby hook...

...or a lob over the top off of a dribble-handoff...

Milwaukee had no answer. And those are just on the possessions where Paul and Booker didn't go right at Lopez when he was on an island, which happened more often than not.

The Bucks tried fronting Ayton on switches, but the Suns had adjustments in place for that. They tried a little bit of drop coverage, but that's a dangerous game against midrange snipers.

As a result, aside from the win and big games from Paul and Booker, Ayton had an NBA Finals performance for the record books, finishing with 22 points and 19 rebounds while shooting 80.0 percent from the field.

He joined Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to have at least 20 points and 15 rebounds on 80.0 percent shooting in a Finals game. He became the first player since Tim Duncan (1999) to have at least 15 points and 15 boards in a Finals debut. He came up one rebound shy of joining Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan as the only players in the last 35 years to have a 20-20 game in the Finals (he had a board stolen by his teammate Paul on the last play of the game, who then pleaded his case to the stat caller to give the board to Ayton for, assumingly, controlling the rebound first).

After the game, Suns head coach Monty Williams praised Ayton for his development this postseason, maximizing his strengths alongside two shot creators.

"He's just locked into the role," Williams stated. "Sometimes, when you tell a player he has a role, they tend to think that you're limiting their ability. I don't think DA thinks that.

"I think he understands his role and how he can affect winning on both sides of the ball. It certainly helps to have Chris and Book creating opportunities for him, but he's done a really good job of understanding the angles and screens and where to be in the pocket to finish around the basket. He's just a presence down there."

Looking ahead to Game 2, what could the Bucks do differently to try and stop the Suns' three-headed monster on offence?

Putting former Defensive Player of the Year Giannis Antetokounmpo on Ayton for a more agile switch on to Paul or Booker would normally be an option, and we did see a small dose of that in Game 1, but that's a demanding task for a player labouring through a hyperextended knee and Milwaukee prefers to use him as a free safety defender anyway.

Their best bet may be to put Tucker on Ayton, to begin with, moving Middleton on to Paul (or Booker) for more versatile switches. That would require Lopez and Antetokounmpo - who would be defending some combination of Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder or Cam Johnson - to be aggressive with backside help on Ayton, forcing one of the Suns' three wings to knock down outside shots.

Johnson and Bridges each went 2-for-4 from 3 in Game 1, while Crowder struggled to find a rhythm, going 0-for-5 from long range. But with Johnson shooting 45.5 percent from 3 this playoffs and Crowder and Bridges converting at a solid 35 percent clip each, that gameplan could unravel quickly if they're dialled in from distance.

With that being said, something worth noting: Milwaukee has lost Game 1 in five of its last six playoffs series, dating back to last year's playoffs.

However, if coach Budenholzer and the Bucks can't find a remedy for Phoenix's star trio in the pick-and-roll fast, the Suns will take home their first title in franchise history.

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