MINNEAPOLIS – Deandre Ayton watched the Suns win six games without him.
So he wasn’t trying to see them have a letdown in his first game back from injury.
“I was telling everybody, listen here, make sure we bring that same energy ya’ll was bringing the last game ’cause don’t try to take the L when I’m back now,” Ayton said with a smile.
After missing six out of Phoenix’s last seven games that included the previous five with a right leg contusion, Ayton returned with a double-double of 22 points and 12 rebounds in Monday’s 99-96 win over Minnesota before 16,274 fans at Target Center. The Suns extended their season-long winning streak to nine straight.
“The big fella came back with a bunch of pop in his step,” Suns All-Star point guard Chris Paul said. “His energy, his offensive rebounds.”
As Paul continued to talk about Ayton’s play, he admitted not knowing the Suns big connected on 10-of-14 shots from the field, a stat that led to Devin Booker saying, ‘He was hooping, he was hooping.”
This was the first time Ayton has done media interviews since ESPN’s story broke on the Robert Sarver allegations of racism and misogyny that fueled a “toxic’ work environment within the Suns organization.
With the NBA launching an investigation that’s already underway, Ayton was asked his reaction as his name was mentioned in the ESPN article.
“I’m DA, I can only control what I can control,” Ayton said. “My back has been against the wall plenty of times. All I can do is put my head down and work. That’s about it.”
Ayton also addressed ESPN NBA analyst Jalen Rose saying during an NBA Countdown roundtable that Sarver called Ayton a “lazy N-word.” Stephen A. Smith came on the show the following week and said Rose, who was out of the country, made a mistake and apologized for the miscommunication.
Ayton said he hadn’t even heard about it.
“I don’t even follow social media like that with all that nonsense to be honest,” Ayton said.
Ayton added he’s taking a cue from Paul and Booker on how to handle such a tense and emotional situation.
“They’re the most famous athletes in the NBA right now and they block it out,” Ayton said. “I can block it out, too. It’s just contagious on how they carry themselves.”
When later asked if he had any uncomfortable interactions with Sarver, Ayton said, “Nah. Not at all.”
On the court, Ayton went into Monday’s game listed as questionable with Suns coach Monty Williams confirming his starting center was playing in the second of back-to-back games.
The Suns won at Houston, 115-89, Sunday night, to improve to 6-0 minus Ayton.
“His conditioning, getting back to the level of sharpness and conditioning acclimated to how we play from a foundational standpoint,” Williams said before the game. “We haven’t been able to play 5-on-5. Try to get him back the best way I know how, which is ease him back into it. We’ve talked the last few days about doing all he can to get himself to a high, high level from a foundational conditioning standpoint so he can get out there and play in shorter spurts than he’s used to.”
Williams said Ayton’s MRI on his injured leg came back clean weeks ago, but the 6-11 center seemed to take longer to return that expected.He played after missing one game with the initial injury, suffered Oct. 30 against Cleveland, but then sat out after that.
“My defensive coverages,” said Ayton when asked what was weighing on him mentally when looking to return to action. “That’s about it. Just knowing where I need to be, where my team needed me to be. Just getting us back in rhythm on just having me on the court on both ends.”
JaVale McGee had been starting in his place, but Ayton got the start Monday night. He hit his first five shots from the field with one coming off a lob pass from Paul he finished with a two-handed flush.
“I’m glad C threw me that, I needed that one to see where I was at to be honest,” Ayton said. “Running was my main thing on my mind, to see how I felt when I was running. Especially just doing hard turns and cuts and stuff like that. Quick stops, but everything felt pretty good.”
Williams did follow through with an idea of playing Ayton, McGee and Kaminsky, who scored a career-high 31 points last week against Portland.
Kaminsky started the second quarter, something Ayton would normally do, but only played four minutes in scoring just three points. McGee played 11 minutes, but managed only two points on 1-of-3 shooting.
So, Ayton was being asked in his first game back to log in major minutes.
“Just his presence is what we needed,” Williams said after the game. “He draws so much attention when he dives. He generated a ton of shots for us. We just didn’t knock them down.”
The Suns shot a lackluster 7-of-31 from deep, but Ayton helped offset that with his shooting performance in 33 minutes of action.
“I probably played him way more minutes than I thought,” Williams said. “Probably five-plus more than I wanted, but he didn’t look that tired. He was a bit tired, but not as tired as I thought he would be and he was really effective.”
If that wasn’t enough, Ayton had to do it battling the one of the game’s best bigs in Karl-Anthony Towns.
Playing 40 minutes, the T-Wolves 7-footer went for a game-high 35 points and 13 rebounds on his 26th birthday, got Ayton in foul trouble, but Ayton battled Towns – and fatigue – all night.
“Having a matchup with KAT, it’s not easy,” Booker said. “To come in here and play the right way and come out of here with a win is big time.”
Ayton’s last basket gave Phoenix the lead for good, 93-92, with 1:13 left in the game.
“He was able to remain poised,” Williams said. “He had it. He didn’t know how open he was and he pump faked and he gathered and he was able to put it in the basket. Typically, you don’t do that on your first game back.”
Ayton almost stayed poised for too long.
“After the pump fake, all I heard was the ref saying, ‘That could be 3 now DA,’” said Ayton, as he was close to getting called for a three-second violation. “I’m like, OK, I got to throw this one up. Makes no sense to throw it out. They all in steal outs so I might as well do what I got to do.”
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Ayton returns in Suns road win, addresses Sarver, Rose controversies