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In an incredible playoff showdown featuring multiple superstars dropping gaudy stat lines, most headlines from the Phoenix Suns’ Game 4 win over the Denver Nuggets revolved around Devin Booker, Nikola Jokic or Kevin Durant. But here, Landry Shamet and Deandre Ayton deserve their time in the spotlight.
In a clash of titans where Booker dropped 36 points on 14-of-18 shooting while notching a playoff career high of 12 assists, where Durant put up a 36-11-6 stat line on 11-of-19 shooting, and where Jokic looked unstoppable with 53 points and 11 assists on 20-of-30 shooting, the stars dominated the proceedings. It truly was a shootout for the ages, and there will be time before Game 5 to discuss what Phoenix needs to carry over into that pivotal matchup.
But before that happens, the two most scapegoated members of the Suns deserve credit for rising above the outside noise and delivering some crucial contributions in Sunday’s 129-124 win.
Over the past few years, months and days most especially, Shamet and Ayton have been slandered more than anyone. While criticism has been warranted with each one for their performance on the court at various points throughout the season, this is that special, brutal time of year where basketball discussion too easily warps into a nonstop slew of jokes, insults and personal attacks that cross the line.
And contrary to popular belief, they — and their teammates — are acutely aware of what’s being said about them.
“People are gonna say something regardless of what you do in this league, and the people on the outside don’t understand the pressure and the preparation that comes with this sport,” Devin Booker said. “It’s the highest level, nobody’s intentionally out there trying to mess up for their team. But they came with it. That’s the more impressive part, to hear the outside noise, feel it, and then respond. And that’s all that we can do.”
In that spirit, we’d be remiss in not taking this opportunity to highlight a much-needed breakout game for Landry Shamet, as well as an understated bounce-back night for Deandre Ayton.
Landry Shamet validates Monty Williams’ trust
Prior to Game 4, coach Monty Williams was asked about Shamet’s play so far in the playoffs.
“Last game, he was really good defensively, getting over screens and just fighting,” Williams said. “I think he’s someone that we can use as a scorer when we need to, pace-wise, for sure, and defensively, he just competes. And we need that.”
The vitriolic responses on Twitter were exactly what one would expect. And to be fair, the numbers backed up how rough Shamet’s start to the postseason had been. Heading into Game 4, he had shot just 6-for-19 from the field and 2-for-9 from 3-point range, all while sporting a team-worst -29 point differential in his 94 minutes of action.
In one performance at a critical juncture of the Suns’ season, Shamet bought himself a ton of goodwill with the best night of his playoff career. He dropped 19 points in 30 minutes off the bench, outscoring Denver’s second unit by himself. He shot 6-for-9 from the floor, matching his made field goal total from the Suns’ first eight playoff games combined. And he went 5-for-8 from downtown, nearly matching the Nuggets’ 3-point output (seven) by himself.
“To see guys overcome the mental challenges that the NBA presents every single player — I don’t care who you are, from the elite guys to the guys who are just trying to make it on 10-day contracts, doubt creeps in at some point,” Williams said. “It’s a skill to overcome that and keep working and stay with it, and that’s who he’s been.”
It wasn’t just the raw output, but the timing of it that turned an arena full of Suns fans who lightly booed him when he checked in to a stadium roaring in support. Four of Shamet’s 3s came over a four-minute stretch in the fourth quarter where Denver was threatening to close in.
Each time the ball found Shamet in the corner off a double-team on Devin Booker or Kevin Durant, the much-maligned backup made the Nuggets pay.
“Those guys are gonna draw a lot of attention,” Shamet said. “Book’s making unbelievable reads right now, seeing the defense and making the right play all the time. So it’s just a matter of us on the back end of that play trying to convert, and that’s what we were able to do tonight.”
Having guys like Shamet, Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren on the back side when Booker and Durant get hit with traps has been a key force in turning the series around, and it’s a testament to his mental approach that he’s been able to fight through the struggles and outside criticism to have an impact.
“The execution versus double-teams and him taking and making shots speaks to his mentality, the work he puts in,” Williams said. “All NBA players have to, to be in those positions and succeed, but his mentality is something that we need.”
It wasn’t just shot-making in Game 4, however. Defensively, Shamet was hounding Jamal Murray all over the court. And while Murray has gotten the better of that matchup for the majority of the series, over the last two games, Shamet has stuck to him like a shadow, making him earn every single bucket.
In Game 3, Murray had 32 points, but they came on 13-of-29 shooting. In Game 4, he added another 28 points, but he needed 25 shots to get there. Shamet has only played a role in trying to throw different bodies at Murray, but his unflappable motor on that end spares Booker from having to exert even more energy trying to stop the Nuggets’ star guard all game.
“Man, the intensity he brought on the ball defensively, that took us to the next level,” Kevin Durant said of Shamet. “He worked his ass off on the ball. Jamal Murray’s an incredible player. That pick-and-roll with him and Jokic is almost unstoppable, but he just played his tail off.”
After a couple of years of having his playing time questioned, hearing his name in trade rumors and enduring heaps of criticism lobbed his way, Shamet needed a night like that.
“I’m just out here trying to do my job and do the best I can,” he said. “Coach asks me to do something, I try to go do it. Teammates trust me.”
Unfortunately, there’s an undeniable sinking feeling Shamet couldn’t even truly enjoy what should’ve been a banner night — or at least, not publicly for the media and fans to see. Shamet has always had a tendency to deflect questions about his good shooting nights. He calls himself his harshest critic, says he expects to make shots at a high clip every night and regularly chooses to focus on the team outcome instead of his play.
But after his 3-point demolition swung an entire playoff game in Phoenix’s favor, which followed a few weeks of inconsistent minutes and poor shooting, Shamet’s responses felt angry.
“I’m hungry, I want to win,” he said flatly. “A healthy amount of pissed off and just been ready to go. That’s all I really gotta say on that.”
Being reserved or focused on the task at hand in the middle of a 2-2 series is one thing. This feels like something else entirely, the culmination of being ridiculed for months and realizing how fickle fan response can be.
To be clear, Shamet’s performances in these playoffs, this season and even last season have not been up to anyone’s expectations. He’s impressed with his defensive effort, but given his role, his contract and his output, criticism was warranted.
Even so, when analysis turns to widespread condemnation, the indignities add up quick. And even for those with the thickest skin, all that outside noise can be difficult to tune out once it reaches a fever pitch.
“He and I have had a number of talks about just grinding it out, don’t overthink it, trust your work, that kind of thing,” Williams said. “I’m not that bright, but when I do talk to him, that’s what I tell Landry, and you love to see guys like that who put the work in and stay with it succeed.”
Stringing together a few more performances like this would do wonders for Landry Shamet’s confidence and repairing an uncomfortable relationship with a fanbase that lightly booed him when he first checked in on Sunday. For now, the hope is that he got more enjoyment behind closed doors from his career night than just the satisfaction of silencing critics.
“I trust [Williams], trust myself, and I just want to win,” Shamet said. “I don’t really care about the other stuff, the noise, the nonsense, the whatever that goes on. But I just want to win.”
Deandre Ayton does the little things again
Game 3 was a night to forget for Deandre Ayton. After a decent first half, he was disastrous in the third quarter, missing easy shots near the paint, getting stripped from behind after one defensive rebound and simply being ineffective and unfocused defensively.
It was so bad the Suns decided to close with Jock Landale, and heading into Game 4, there was legitimate concern on the outside about whether Ayton could be reached.
“DA didn’t have his best tonight, but it’s great to be able to have your brother out there that can pick it up for you,” Williams said.
Ayton certainly needed his brothers. When he was subbed out in the fourth quarter, he looked visibly upset. Cam Payne and Damion Lee tried offering him words of encouragement in that difficult moment, and after the game, Booker and Durant did the same in a more public setting.
“Energy and effort always has to be high, especially around this time,” Booker said in his postgame presser. “You can’t get flustered, you can’t get in your own head, and I could see that a little bit with him today. So it’s my job to just pump him up.”
Despite all the conversations about his poor play, his upset demeanor on the sidelines and his decision to slip out before media members were allowed into the locker room, very little was made of DA offering Landale words of advice on how to guard Jokic during the very next timeout.
“I know he still stayed into the game regardless,” Durant acknowledged. “He was on the same page with us, encouraging us, cheering for us when he was out on the bench. So I think DA just wants to be out there, he wants to contribute, he wants to play well every single night.”
The support carried over to the next day at practice, where Landale — the guy who took his minutes down the stretch in Game 3 — went on an all-time rant defending Ayton as a teammate and player.
“It’s tough for me to sit back and just be okay with all the slander that’s thrown DA’s way,” Landale said. “I’m kind of sick of hearing about everyone shitting on him nonstop. I know it comes with the business and I know that that’s your guys’ job and it’s other people’s right to say what they want to say, but DA’s been fucking great for us.”
While most people focused on viral ESPN clips of DA not boxing out or refusing to dunk on what should’ve been a wide-open lane to the basket, Williams said the Suns went about their practice as usual. No one addressed it directly, but everyone found a way to show their support.
“I watched him yesterday walk into the gym, get his work in, go through our normal day,” Williams said. “No one talked about it in our gym. We understand this economy of the NBA, with all the stuff that’s broken down and talked about, that people are gonna say stuff, and we didn’t. Everybody in our gym put their arms around him in their own way, and we do that for everybody.”
That type of quiet, unspoken support is what Ayton needed after his darkest moment of the season, and it’s that sense of family that helped him regroup for a pivotal Game 4.
“That’s why we break down the huddle, with our three-counts, it’s ‘family’ every time,” Ayton said. “That’s the things we do that’s beyond the court. This team, we hang out with each other off the court. It’s been like that. That’s the culture of this team, and just having that chemistry and hanging on to my personnel and who I am and stuff like that is big.”
The results in Game 4 didn’t exactly show up on the box score. Ayton finished with a mundane 8 points, 8 rebounds, 1 block and 1 steal on 3-of-6 shooting in his 27 minutes. Foul trouble limited his playing time again, but as always, DA made his impact by doing the little things.
It was apparent right from the jump that Ayton was ready to bounce back, as he snatched three offensive rebounds on the first possession. The Suns finally scored on their fourth try, and DA’s hustle had already whipped the crowd up into a frenzy.
“I thought DA’s first possession set the tone for the game, those three offensive rebounds,” Williams said. “It got the crowd going, it got our guys going.”
The quietly important plays kept coming. In the first half, Ayton caught a pass from Booker in a similar scoring position as the layup he flubbed in Game 3. This time, he didn’t waste an opportunity to dunk it.
Ayton also challenged Murray at the rim in ways he conceded in Game 3. He ran the floor, set great screens and rolled with intention. And in the fourth quarter, he had a huge and-1 and a steal on one of the Nuggets’ final plays when it was still a one-possession game with less than 30 seconds to go, forcing a jump ball.
“I thought he came out in that fourth quarter and made some huge defensive plays for us,” Durant said. “Got the steal, got the jump ball right after that, was able to get another rebound late in the game. And he got an and-1 as soon as he came in the game, which was huge for us. So we’re gonna need that in Game 5.”
No one should be celebrating the return of “Playoff DA,” let alone “Dominayton.” He failed to record double figures in the scoring or rebounding columns, and his chief defensive assignment — the Joker — exploded for 53 points and 11 assists.
But after a Game 3 where he played so terribly he got benched, it felt like his confidence was wavering on a knife’s edge. Being able to regroup and meaningfully contribute by doing the little things is quite a feat, especially with how low he was feeling after hearing some boo birds on Friday.
“Mainly just getting my head together, man,” Ayton said. “Game 3, I didn’t have much mental stamina, to where I just wasn’t focused. I know everybody seen me getting checked out late. I don’t blame coach. We’re trying to win, and that’s the best thing to do right now.”
Like Shamet, one performance doesn’t suddenly exonerate Ayton from his very real struggles leading up to this point. The Suns still need a lot more — consistently — out of both of them if they want to make a serious run at a title. DA’s “Tesla battery” motor can’t keep coming into question, even as his teammates defend him.
“Sometimes the way the game flows, he gets a little bit frustrated, and all power to him,” Landale explained. “Like, he’s allowed to let that affect him sometimes. But we try and keep on him about proving why he’s got that max contract and why he’s the No. 1 draft pick and he has all the talent in the world to really go out there and do whatever he wants to do. I understand a little bit of it, but at the same time, it’s a tough transition sometimes for him, coming from being a focal point of an offense and now we’ve got Kevin Durant and Devin Booker putting up damn near 50 points a night.”
During this stressful, high-stakes time of year featuring some of the world’s greatest competitors, there’s something to be said about the added weight of toxicity that comes with being a professional athlete. Hearing the boos turn to roars of approval for both Shamet and Ayton was a welcome but jarring experience in Game 4.
If they can build on this momentum, it could be a turning point for repairing that fractured relationship with a fanbase that has high expectations. Should the shots fail to fall again in Game 5, the Suns’ most scapegoated duo will have to seek encouragement in a familiar place — each other — amidst the hailstorm of criticism that’s sure to follow.
“It’s not uncommon for players to have tough shooting nights and tough games,” Williams said. “I love the fact that all of our guys have rallied around each other, and they always do that when someone is getting criticized and all that stuff that goes with our game.”
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