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Suns match Pacers’ offer to Deandre Ayton, complicating Kevin Durant pursuit

The Phoenix Suns will retain center Deandre Ayton, right, after matching the Indiana Pacers' maximum offer sheet. (Darron Cummings/AP)

The Phoenix Suns matched the Indiana Pacers’ maximum offer sheet to restricted free agent center Deandre Ayton, a person with knowledge of the decision confirmed Thursday, in a move that could complicate the Western Conference power’s hopes of trading for Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant.

Indiana, which is constructing a young core around guards Tyrese Haliburton and Bennedict Mathurin, signed Ayton to a four-year, $133 million offer sheet, ESPN first reported. Though the Suns had two days to decide whether to match Indiana’s offer, they moved quickly to retain Ayton, the Athletic first reported.

After losing veteran center JaVale McGee to the Dallas Mavericks in free agency earlier this month, Phoenix was motivated to retain Ayton as it seeks to keep its championship window open with all-star guards Chris Paul and Devin Booker. Per league rules, Phoenix will not be able to trade Ayton until Jan. 15.

As the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, the 23-year-old Ayton was this summer’s highest-profile restricted free agent. After handing out big contracts to Paul, Booker and Mikal Bridges, Phoenix opted to let Ayton enter restricted free agency while his fellow draft classmates such as Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Jaren Jackson Jr. all signed lucrative extensions.

The athletic fourth-year center responded by averaging 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds, but his campaign ended on a sour note when he was benched down the stretch of Game 7 during a second-round loss to the Dallas Mavericks following a disagreement with Coach Monty Williams. By matching the Pacers’ offer, which was the longest allowable for an outside suitor, the Suns avoided granting Ayton a full, five-year maximum contract that could have been worth roughly $175 million.

Ayton and Bridges, a talented two-way wing, were viewed as possible centerpieces in a deal for Durant, who has reportedly targeted Phoenix and the Miami Heat as his top destinations in a trade. With Ayton now ineligible to be traded until mid-January, it’s unclear whether the Suns will be able to construct a package of players and picks that is suitable to the Nets while still remaining among the league’s top title contenders.

The rebuilding Pacers traded all-star center Domantas Sabonis to the Sacramento Kings in February, and they parted with veteran guard Malcolm Brogdon in a deal with the Boston Celtics earlier this month. Given its young roster, Indiana could be one of several teams in the mix to select French phenom Victor Wembanyama in the 2023 draft.

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