Deandre Ayton Solidifying Suns' Big 3 on NBA's Biggest Stage

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJuly 7, 2021

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - JULY 06: Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns is defended by Jeff Teague #5 of the Milwaukee Bucks during the first half in Game One of the NBA Finals at Phoenix Suns Arena on July 06, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesPhoto by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In their first NBA Finals appearance since 1993, the Phoenix Suns rode Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and a high-octane third quarter to a 118-105 home victory in Game 1 over Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.

CP3 was brilliant, particularly in that third frame, when he had 16 points on an array of shots from three, the mid-range and at the rim. He was 6-of-7 from the field and 3-of-3 from three in the quarter. He hit his all-too-familiar pull-up after dragging a big out of the paint. He blew by Bobby Portis after baiting him into a reach.

After a historic 41-point performance in the closeout game of the Western Conference Finals, Paul finished with 32 points and nine assists in a Finals debut that put him in the company of all-time great big men:

Justin Kubatko @jkubatko

Chris Paul is the third player age 36 years or older to record a 30-point game in the NBA Finals. He joins Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (6x) and Tim Duncan. https://t.co/Jdh362Tkas

He didn't lead Phoenix to a 1-0 lead alone, though. Devin Booker continued to impress in his first postseason, adding 27 points, six assists and three steals.

It's far from a perfect analog, but this backcourt was so good that it gave off a hint of Shaq-and-Kobe vibes.

Kobe Bryant won his first title in his fourth season. Booker is in his sixth. Shaquille O'Neal was still the best player on the Los Angeles Lakers at the time. CP3 is still the best player on the Suns. A dominant wing and a dominant big was an ideal combo for that era. Dominant pick-and-roll players might be the perfect combo for this era.

Their ability to pick opponents apart out of those sets is largely dependent on the third member of what is looking increasingly like a legitimate Big 3, though.

This postseason has been something of a showcase for Ayton, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft who's been overshadowed by Luka Doncic and Trae Young. After going for 22 points (on 8-of-10 shooting) and 19 rebounds in Game 1, Ayton's playoff averages are up to 16.5 points and 12.2 rebounds.

Moses Malone is the only other sub-23-year-old player in NBA history to log at least 500 minutes and average 16 points and 12 rebounds in a single postseason. And Malone's 50.0 field-goal percentage in that run falls well shy of Ayton's astronomical 71.1.

"It's trust," Paul said of his chemistry with Booker and Ayton in his ESPN postgame interview. "It's trust we've been building all season long for these moments."

Throughout the playoffs, and particularly in Game 1 against Milwaukee, that trust was on vivid orange and purple display.

When the Bucks tried to switch ball screens, the guards trusted Ayton to punish smaller defenders inside, as he did with an early post-up hook shot over P.J. Tucker. When they reverted to their more typical drop coverage (meaning the big drops to the paint to protect against the roll), Booker or Paul made them pay while Brook Lopez was inside or in no-man's land.

There's a symbiosis with these three that has melded almost perfectly over the course of the postseason.

While multiple top-tier playmakers may be the stylistic preference of the day, it's hard to imagine Phoenix being within three wins of a championship without Ayton's roll gravity, finishing ability and command of the glass.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

This series is far from over, though. With 20 points and 17 boards, Giannis looked spry following the hyperextension of his left knee against the Atlanta Hawks. Khris Middleton got going in the third and finished with 29 points. A breakout performance from Jrue Holiday still feels like a possibility. And, as the old adage goes, the Bucks' role players figure to play better at home.

But if the Suns pull this off, the continued ascendence of Booker, as well as Ayton's breakout, will make Phoenix's offseason one of the most interesting in the league.

The big man will be extension eligible this summer. Over the past couple months, he may have played his way into max-contract territory. Booker is already under contract for an average of $33.8 million a year through 2023-24. And the biggest story may prove to be CP3 and his $44.2 million player option.

That's a lot of money to turn down, but Paul's past two seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Phoenix may have earned him one last two- or three-year contract that might make declining the option worth the risk.

The aforementioned Lakers comparison sort of breaks down when you consider Paul is almost 10 years older than Shaq was when he won his first title. Given what CP3 has shown in this chapter of his career, though, how can the Suns afford not to run this back (assuming Paul wants to stay)?

Again, this is just Game 1. Giannis' knee may get stronger over the course of the series. And, as was the case this season, 2021-22 will feature plenty of legitimate title contenders.

But Ayton gives the Suns a full-fledged Big 3, a hallmark of several 21st-century title teams. Regardless of the leader's age or the outcome of the Finals, it deserves more than a year together.