It was the 17 minutes that raised eyebrows. One of Phoenix’s advantages in this series was they were bigger than Dallas and could pound the ball inside and dominate the glass, and Ayton had some big games this series doing just that.
After the loss, Suns’ coach Monty Williams was asked about Ayton’s minutes and gave a terse response:
Monty Williams on Deandre Ayton only playing 17 minutes tonight: "It's internal."
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) May 16, 2022
There were reports from inside the building that Ayton and Williams had a few words after the coach benched him for the last time, three-and-a-half minutes into the second half (Bismack Biyombo played the fourth quarter at center, although by then the game was essentially over). It was a frustrating stretch for Suns fans, who saw their team down by 30 at the half come out with the same lackadaisical play rather than showing some fire and closing the gap. Ayton was part of that.
This was Deandre Ayton's last defensive possession of the game that appeared to prompt Monty to sub him out for the final time. pic.twitter.com/Bqj2w47mA9
— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) May 16, 2022
Ayton is a restricted free agent this offseason. He had wanted a max contract extension heading into this season but the Suns didn’t put one on the table, leading to tension. Ayton averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds a game this season, but the Suns’ defense was a little worse when he was on the court (2.3 points per 100 possessions) and he did not impact the game in the playoffs like a max player. Devin Booker was asked about Ayton postgame, and his comment could be read a couple of ways (he doesn’t demand the franchise sign the big man).
"His contract situation is between him and the front office. I care about him as a brother. Just making sure his mental is right…whatever happens, happens. Kind of hard to look so far in the future." – Devin Booker on Deandre Ayton's contract situation
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) May 16, 2022
Is another team going to step up and try to poach Ayton as a free agent? Could there be a sign-and-trade if both sides are ready to move on? Both of those are possible, although the more likely outcome is Ayton re-signs with the Suns for a number less than he was hoping (and if he is traded, it’s in the summer of 2023).
The Suns shouldn’t overreact to this loss — they went to the Finals a season ago and won 64 games this season. They need tweaks to the roster — such as a better backup point guard to help limit the minutes of Chris Paul — not an overhaul.
It’s going to be an interesting offseason in the Arizona desert. One more interesting than we thought it would be a couple of weeks ago.