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NBA playoff notebook: Who is the most important player on the Suns?

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The Phoenix Suns can advance to the NBA Finals with a win Monday night against the Los Angeles Clippers. Devin Booker is their most skilled player. Chris Paul is their most experienced player. But who is the most important player on the Suns?

That would be Deandre Ayton, the team’s 22-year-old starting center, who has turned these playoffs into his coming out party. When he joined the Suns as the No. 1 overall pick in 2018, there were immediate question marks about Ayton’s ability to be a plus defender in the NBA and whether Phoenix made a mistake selecting a center over Luka Doncic or Trae Young.

Those questions remained even heading into this season after the Suns added Paul and announced their intentions to contend in the West. Ayton has answered all the questions in these playoffs. He has been the team’s most efficient scorer on the offensive end and a plus on defense, doing a remarkable job of containing Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic in the first two rounds.

In Saturday’s Game 4 win at Staples Center, Ayton played 41 minutes, shot 8-for-14 from the field, scored 19 points, grabbed 22 rebounds and blocked four shots. The Suns center was a presence on both ends of the floor throughout a tightly-contested game, and now his team is one win away from winning the West.

Head coach Monty Williams called him a catalyst on the defensive end afterward. Paul and Booker went out of their way to praise Ayton’s play. The Suns starting center admitted all the doubt about his ability to contribute in his first playoff run served as motivation.

The playoffs have been full of surprises so far, but the one consistent thing the Suns have been able to count on is their starting center. If Phoenix is going to finish off the Clippers tonight, they’ll need another stand-out two-way performance from Ayton. It would be a monumental accomplishment for a franchise that went 19-63 two years ago and has been out of the playoffs for an entire decade.

DeAndre Ayton has been the breakout star of the playoffs. (Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)
Deandre Ayton has been the breakout star of the playoffs. (Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)

The annual championship asterisk conversation

By the way, it’s been pointed out by many people that should the Suns advance to the Finals, they will have played three teams missing their star players. The Lakers didn’t have a healthy Davis towards the end of their first-round series, the Nuggets were missing Jamal Murray, and Kawhi Leonard has been out for the entire Western Conference final.

Putting an asterisk on championship runs feels like a really unfair way to denigrate a team’s accomplishment. It should absolutely be part of the story, but not the defining trait about any title team.

Injuries are, unfortunately, a part of the game, and also, credit the Suns for taking advantage of the hand they’ve been dealt. You still have to beat the teams in front of you, and so far, Phoenix has done just that. If they do go on to win it all, the Suns will have earned it.

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Giannis and his 12-second free-throw routine

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s free-throw routine has become its own sideshow during Milwaukee Bucks games. Per the NBA’s official rulebook, a player has 10 seconds to attempt a free throw after receiving the ball from the official.

Antetokounmpo’s elaborate routine at the line exceeds the 10 seconds almost every time he attempts a free throw. Fans in Brooklyn and Atlanta have started counting to 10 every time he steps to the line. Granted, these unofficial counts are probably a bit on the faster side, but the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final confirmed the rule violation last week, noting that the Bucks star’s two made free throws with 5.3 seconds left in the game should not have counted.

It has led to several people asking whether people actually care about the rule violation:

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The answer is absolutely yes. Antetokounmpo has been called for the 10-second violation only twice in these playoffs, but it has not been enforced on a regular basis. All the referees need to do is call the violation every time to the point where Antetokounmpo would have to shorten his routine and not risk forfeiting scoring opportunities at the free-throw line for his team.

At the risk of sounding like a buzzkill, rules are rules. Imagine if one team had 30 seconds on the shot clock while the other had 24. Or what if we just stopped enforcing the eight-second violation rule requiring teams to cross half-court in that time on every possession.

Antetokounmpo’s free-throw routine isn’t creating a competitive advantage for the Bucks, but it’s strange to see how the league, who knows officiating is scrutinized game-to-game in the postseason, hasn’t stepped in and asked the officials to put this distraction away.

A note on everyone’s favorite topic: replay review

Even though replay reviews in the final two minutes of games have killed the momentum of many postseason games, there is value in making sure crucial calls down the stretch are correctly made.

But there’s a glaring flaw with a particular type of replay review at the moment. Towards the end of Game 2 between the Suns and Clippers, Patrick Beverley stripped Booker as he drove towards the basket, sending the ball out of bounds. On replay review, it was determined the ball was in Booker’s hand last, and the ball was awarded to Los Angeles.

A similar play happened at the end of Game 4 when Cam Payne drove to the basket and was stripped late in the fourth quarter. The refs did not review the play, prompting some to wonder why:

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The danger with reviewing these specific plays — where the defender strips the ball out of the player’s hand — is that the ball will always be in the offensive player’s hand last. So by review, you can almost count on it being overturned. But that’s not the spirit of the rule. The defender is the player causing the ball to go out of bounds, and that’s how the call goes for the first 46 minutes of the game. But when we go to replay review in the final two minutes, this specific call is now subject to video evidence which goes against the nature of the rule.

This is an instance where video review is negating the correct basketball call.

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