Deandre Ayton: Suns welcome doubters in playoff chase

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton doesn't care that his team faces long odds to make the playoffs when the NBA season resumes later this month, saying that hearing the doubts from those counting the Suns out just makes the team want to "shut them up even more."

"We're coming to work. We've been working," Ayton told reporters on a video call Thursday afternoon. "We thank the league for choosing us as one of the teams. We're grateful, and we're coming to work. That's about it. Whatever the media has to say, we're just going to use that to add to the fuel."

Phoenix is six games out of a playoff spot in the West and would have to pass at least four teams in eight games to be eligible for the play-in series for the No. 8 seed in the West. The latest projections from ESPN's Kevin Pelton have the Suns making the playoffs just 0.4% of the time.

But the Suns had a better winning percentage on the road this season (.433) than they did at home (.371), so Ayton said they are looking forward to playing in Orlando, Florida, with a chance to bond and make history by coming back to make the playoffs.

"When we're on the road, that's where we have our best games. That's where we come together," Ayton said. "That's where Coach has us thinking it's us against the world. And that's the best feeling to me. We know how the media is when it comes to the Suns, let's be real here. We all know that feeling. It's a feeling to where we know, we ain't come to play games."

After the NBA season was suspended in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic, Ayton took his time getting back to basketball while recovering from a left ankle injury.

"I had a break. I was happy. I played 2K," Ayton said. "I felt like I was back in high school. I played 2K all day. Skipped from sleep to playing the game all day. I didn't really have a hard time [being away from basketball].

"Everybody was on me about going to the gym, but obviously I picked it up where I fit it into my schedule later on in quarantine. I definitely took advantage of taking that break, taking that load off. I think that's why I have so much energy. I wasn't thinking about it and just waiting for the world to get back to normal."

Ayton suffered what he called a small bone bruise on his left ankle on March 3. He said the rehab process was tougher because things had to happen remotely.

"The rehab was tough because, you know, quarantine and reaching out to people who couldn't come see me to help me physically," Ayton said. "... The Suns, Cory [Schlesinger], our strength and conditioning coach, he sent me some things to help my ankle. I have a weight room at home, so I was working out there until it was time to open up the facility for individual workouts."

During those individual workouts, Ayton said he worked on his 3-point shot. Ayton is 0-for-7 from deep in his NBA career, a bit of a disappointment after he flashed some ability to shoot from long range (12-of-35) in college at Arizona.

But now he feels confident in his 3-pointer.

"I'm shooting that 3-ball like it's a middy [midrange shot]," Ayton said. "That's a middy shot now."

He has also been working with Suns assistant coach Mark Bryant on his shot-blocking. Ayton said he was trying to block "every shot" possible when he returned from his 25-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance.

"Even on ball switches, I was trying my best to press up no matter what," Ayton said. "Every opportunity I had to show my defense because I know everybody is watching me. I tried to prove everybody wrong coming back. It was a big chip.

"Coach [Bryant] has been on my back about reading defense, shot-blocking with different hands, how to avoid contact and just blocking the shot, how to not send it out of bounds so we can have extra possessions, stuff like that."

When the Suns make it to Orlando, Ayton said it won't be weird to play games in front of no fans. He mentioned having to do so at times while in high school. He also said his familiarity with playing in Orlando will help.

"Me, I already know Orlando. I know the gym we're going to play in. It's just going to take me back to AAU season," Ayton said. "I feel like we're playing for the semifinals of Peach Jam right now."