(Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images)
Deandre Ayton sabotaged the season with a 25-game suspension. He nearly did it again with a missed COVID-19 test inside the bubble, again putting the Phoenix Suns in jeopardy.
Strike two. No excuses. His carelessness is officially a liability.
To their credit, the Suns saved Ayton from permanent embarrassment on Monday afternoon, extending their unbeaten streak to six games with a 128-101 victory over Oklahoma City. But this is a roll-your-eyes kind of moment. By now, most of his teammates know better than to trust him in high-leverage basketball situations.
Look at the mess he created on Monday:
As tipoff beckoned, the Suns didn’t know if/when Ayton would clear protocol. They started a must-win game without him, with excitement at a fever pitch, with national media paying unprecedented attention, with Dario Saric forced into a starting role.
They performed accordingly. They looked distracted and unglued. They fell way behind.
The Suns were lucky to be playing an Oklahoma City team resting all notable players outside of Chris Paul. They were lucky their mission coincided with another NBA team that really didn’t care that much about winning on Monday, just like the Heat on Saturday.
Depending on the lineups they face in the final two games, the Suns clearly run the risk of an asterisk accompanying their lofty record inside the bubble. The quality of competition is become more dubious as the playoffs grow nearer because they are facing playoff teams tapering near the finish line. That’s a fact they can’t control, and one that does not require an apology.
Had the Suns lost this game, this faux pas would’ve followed Ayton around for the rest of his career. It would’ve been the day he pierced the bubble of excitement surrounding his team for the second time in one season. Just like he did with the suspension for a banned diuretic that came in the wake of a raucous Opening Night victory over the Mavericks so many months ago.
Banned diuretics are often used as masking agents. It’s not the kind of suspension you see often in the NBA. Just like failing protocol and missing a COVID-19 test inside a bubble.
Suns head coach Monty Williams tried to absolve Ayton in his post-game press conference, as if missing a COVID-19 test before the most important game in five seasons was perfectly normal, inside a league that has otherwise covered everything else about bubble protocol in breathtaking detail.
Williams stuck up for his player because he was forced into a tough situation. He didn’t want to penalize the rest of the Suns players who have committed themselves to playing hard inside a bubble, those remembering to take their COVID-19 tests. He didn’t want to teach a lesson at the expense of Arizona, including fans who have consumed these bubble games on the edge of their seats.
Williams even tried to explain that he nearly missed tests himself with all the commotion, only to grow testy with a reporter who attempted a follow-up question.
Williams also stuck up for his player because the curtains are coming down in sports journalism, where most mainstream media no longer wield the juice to hold teams accountable. And it happened because Williams can use this outcome to his advantage, chiding Ayton privately while making it seem like he cut the player a break, by protecting him in the media, thereby protecting his brand and his image.
But he clearly put Williams in a bad spot, having to decide punitive measures on the fly while simultaneously preparing for the biggest game of the season, a game in which Ayton was fortunate to participate. Whoever processed his makeup test should receive a gold medal for speed. Many residents in this state aren’t nearly as lucky.
Truth is, it’s another dumbfounding event in Ayton’s checkered career, where the only constant seems to be varying levels of disappointment.
Spare me the apologists who say he’s young and growing. He’s also a professional athlete earning nearly $10 million a year. And you wonder when he’s going to learn to take all of this more seriously, including the livelihoods of those around him.
Reach Bickley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.