For those curious about the current state of the Phoenix Suns’ long-running rivalry with the Los Angeles Lakers, Patrick Beverley body-checking Deandre Ayton in the back Tuesday night served as a pretty clear indication.
The Lakers have 17 NBA championships, and the Suns have zero. In those terms, there’s no contest between the two.
And yet, watching two of the league’s all-time winningest teams square off in another lopsided fight, it was easy to forget which franchise was which.
One side talked trash while cruising to another double-digit victory; the other lost its composure and got ejected for it. It’s not the first time in recent years we’ve seen it from Suns-Lakers, and it’s not the first time the Suns have seen it from Beverley either.
In their first meeting of the season, the Suns were finally pulling away in the fourth quarter. Back-to-back buckets from Ayton put Phoenix up by 10, and despite having a quiet night compared to Anthony Davis’ gaudy stat line, DA started chirping.
When Devin Booker stared down Austin Reaves after what he thought was a block, Ayton got in on the action, hovering over Reaves as well. Despite Davis standing nearby to protect his teammate. Beverley took it one step further with another cheap shot on the backside of a Suns player.
“Just nonsense,” Devin Booker described it. “Not for the basketball court.”
Beverley was ejected from the game, while Booker was assessed a Flagrant 1 for his follow-through on a violent-looking block. Book said he had no issue with Reaves, and both he and coach Monty Williams admitted they didn’t see what Beverley did when it initially happened, but a look at the replay immediately called to mind repeated history. Beverley’s shove in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals when Chris Paul turned his back reeked of the same ugly behavior.
“I just think the league needs to take a look at those kinds of plays,” Williams said. “They’re just unnecessary. There was obviously some tension, but with us, it’s happening too many times. When you push a guy when he’s not looking like that, that’s just not called for. There’s going to be physicality, there’s going to be tension in games. That’s just the nature of basketball when you have big, strong guys hitting each other the whole game. If you’re standing face-to-face with a guy, and you have words or may tussle a little bit, like, that’s normal for the NBA. But to continue to do that, it’s just out of control.”
“That’s what I spoke on in my postgame interview on the court is I’d have a lot more respect if he just pushed him in the chest when the man’s facing him,” Booker added.
In simpler terms: The Suns said it with their chest, both on the scoreboard and by talking trash to the Lakers’ faces. LA’s starting point guard, meanwhile, chose to retaliate in the cowardly way one would expect from a sore loser.
“I feel like he probably wouldn’t have done that if they was winning, and both times he done it, they were losing,” Mikal Bridges said pointedly.
That’s not to say the Suns were innocent. Ayton and Book were clearly antagonizing the Lakers, a team they’ve relished dismantling in recent years. DA’s 14 points and 15 rebounds make for a decent stat line, and he came to life in the fourth when Phoenix pulled away, but his night paled in comparison to the 37-point, 21-rebound, 5-steal, 5-block monster performance Davis had.
Talking trash to a guy putting up those kinds of numbers is a choice, to say the least.
And yet, basketball is a team sport, and the NBA remains a chatty, hyper-competitive league. Beverley took the bait, playing right into the Suns’ hands.
“Everybody to a man when we got back to the huddle, they were like, ‘Guys, let’s just win the game,'” Williams explained. “That’s that’s what we do. You’re not necessarily going to win that…whatever that is. And we’ve always said you gotta have a mentality where you just keep jabbing a guy in the head, and sooner or later, they’re gonna break. And that’s what we did tonight.”
Ayton took it a step further, saying that even though they keep it in between the lines, it was “about time” the Suns got that kind of smash-mouth camaraderie going in a heated game.
“No matter how the game goin’ or who’s having the best night, we play hard and we make teams give up,” he explained. “It just was a little cherry on top with a little emotion going on. But we always say it, this is Suns basketball. We always in conflict in the game.”
Even so, a blindside shot would be enough to make anyone mad in the heat of the moment. Bridges said his first impulse was to rush over to corral Ayton, knowing he was “ticked off” and needed to be restrained.
“As he should be: pissed off and ready for action,” Bridges said. “That’s why I tried to go over to help my boy, but he has every reason for it.”
Having recent experience with heated playoff and Finals battles — along with watching how CP3 laughed off Beverley’s shove in the conference finals — paid dividends Tuesday night. It represented the opponent’s breaking point.
“This is one of those moments, I’ve seen the moments 100 times,” Ayton said. “CP was in a moment like this. Just keeping your composure and just taking the right next step. I got teammates over there that ran over there for me, so I felt like I was good. Whether I was in the lion’s den or I was outside the lion’s den, it didn’t matter to me. My teammates was coming over there.”
Beverley predictably justified his behavior by saying he was sticking up for his teammates — the same ones who finished the loss without him on the court after his ejection.
Ayton, meanwhile, felt supported by his teammates, contradicting the popular but wildly off-base opinion that the Suns yet again let Beverley punk one of their guys without retaliation.
“All the other stuff that comes with basketball, I don’t care about none of that stuff,” Ayton said. “That’s the officials, that’s their job. They supposed to clean the game up for us when we’re getting out of hand, and that’s what they did tonight.”
As someone who’s experienced the guilt and disappointment of not being able to help his teammates due to a suspension, Ayton wasn’t going to give the officials or the league any reason to keep him off the court again.
“That’s the second time he pushed somebody with their backed turned, but hey, it is what it is,” he said. “I don’t worry about it. It didn’t hurt me. You didn’t take nothing out my pocket, and I ain’t react. So making sure I stay solid, man. I ain’t react, you ain’t getting me! You ain’t getting me out the game, I’m staying in!”
Walking to the bench after the two sides were separated, Ayton turned around to check if his teammates were still with him. They were. They had his back, without having to shove anyone in theirs, and that was all the Suns center needed to know he’d made the right decision.
Sending Beverley a message and getting hit with an ejection, fine or suspension would serve little purpose for the Suns compared to simply winning the game and keeping their eyes on the prize. On Tuesday, it was beating the Lakers for the 11th straight time since this cursed Andre Drummond meme:
“I just think that’s how the cards have fell,” Booker replied when asked about that streak. “I didn’t even know it was 11 times, but let’s keep it up.”
The Suns may be punching down at an inferior team right now, but their ultimate prize has nothing to do with cherishing wins over LA. Like another Lakers rival that has since passed them by in the Clippers, the Suns won’t be taken seriously until they win a title.
At 5-11, the Lakers’ ceiling is a play-in spot, which they fell short of last year. At 11-6, the Suns are first in the West, coming off a 2021 Finals run and a 64- win season last year. They have legitimate title prospects, and risking any of that for a November altercation with a likely lottery team isn’t worth the trouble.
As Ayton says, the Suns know what they left on the table the last two seasons.
“We’re not really playing hard to make you quit, we’re just playing hard, ’cause we have a bigger agenda,” Ayton explained. “This team, we’ve been embarrassed the last two years, playing the best basketball we’ve ever played and never finishing. So if you think tonight is where we’re stopping at, nah. We’re looking at the brighter picture.”
There’s a larger, more debatable conversation to be had about Ayton’s aggression, touches, skill-set, motor and all-around start to the season. His numbers are down, and the fanbase remains divided between two extreme ends of the spectrum — one can’t acknowledge his shortcomings, while the other can’t admit his value to this team.
But for all the consternation about his happiness in Phoenix, his unwillingness to accept his role and his bad blood with Monty Williams, hearing Ayton explain the motivation behind his long-term, composed outlook spoke volumes about where he and the Suns actually are at this point.
“It’s what Monty instilled in us, him being the coach he is,” Ayton said. “That was the Coach of the Year, just not only being a coach, but being that figure that all of us young males need. And it eventually comes on the court because of the chemistry he has with his players. We play hard for that dude. We play hard for him. We play hard for this organization and we play hard for each other. Once you have a great group of guys that’s ready to lock in and listen, from youngest to oldest, it’s hard to stop us.”