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 enabled Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks to have their way in a 120-100 Game 3 victory over the Suns on Sunday night.
“He’s a big part of our team,” said Paul, the Suns’ All-Star point guard. “He’s the anchor of our defense. I feel like any (opposing) team would love for him not to be on the court offensively and defensively.”
Phoenix also missed Devin Booker’s production, as he shot 3 of 14 and collected 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 floor is for the Suns.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft scored 16 points in the first 14 ½ minutes of Game 3 but picked up his fourth foul with 10:25 left in the third quarter and sat out the rest of the period. By the time he returned, the Bucks owned a 22-point lead.
While Ayton wasn’t made available to reporters after the game, his teammates emphasized how much they missed him.
“It was big-time because they crashed the glass so hard and they’re big and they really emphasized physicality this game,” Suns forward Cam Johnson said. “Deandre does a really good job of bringing that presence to our paint, rebounding the ball, being physical, so it’s tough to have him in foul trouble, for sure.”
Phoenix still owns a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series with Game 4 Wednesday night in Milwaukee. But the Suns must find a way to slow down Antetokounmpo, who has collected at least 40 points and 10 rebounds in each of the last two games.
That’s tough enough to do when Ayton’s on the floor. He even had trouble Sunday night trying to help out against the two-time MVP without drawing fouls. And when Ayton’s been on the bench in foul trouble, Antetokounmpo has done virtually whatever he wants.
“It’s tough, man,” Paul said. “Giannis coming at your full speed like a running back. He’s trying to put his hands up, but it’s tough.”
After scoring just 10 points in the Suns’ Game 2 victory, Ayton shot 6 of 7 in the first quarter Sunday. Ayton’s 16 quick points helped the Suns grab a 36-30 lead early in the second period.
But he scored just two more points the rest of the game, finishing with 18 and nine rebounds in less than 25 minutes.
“He just had a good game going, but the foul trouble didn’t allow for him to continue it,” Suns coach Monty Williams said.
Ayton had done a good job of avoiding foul trouble this postseason up until Sunday. Williams said he wasn’t going to complain about officiating but noted that Antetokounmpo had more free-throw attempts (17) than Phoenix’s entire team (16).
“They were aggressive and we have to give them credit,” Williams said. “I’m not going to sit here and complain about a team that is aggressive. But we have to understand how the refs are calling the game and then adjust to that. There’s a ton of physicality in the game, for sure, but as far as teaching him, we got to look at the film and see where he can have better body position and pick up some charges when they present themselves.”
Once Ayton picked up that fourth foul early in the third quarter, the Suns did some experimenting with their lineup due to their lack of size.
The Suns already are playing without forward Dario Saric, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament in Game 1. Forward Torrey Craig played but didn’t seem to be at full strength 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 finals. They had 6-6 forward Jae Crowder playing center at times.
It worked — but the success didn’t last.
The Suns made 12 of their first 14 shots in the third quarter to cut a 15-point halftime deficit to four. But once they cooled off, the Bucks pulled away.
Milwaukee scored the final 16 points of the third quarter to grab a 98-76 lead. The Bucks ended up outscoring the Suns 20-2 in second-chance points.
“We have enough bodies to get that job done if someone gets in foul trouble,” Crowder said. “But tonight it definitely caught us off guard and we had to go throw a lot of different things at them, and it led to us scrambling and the offensive rebounds.”