When he soared over Ivica Zubac for the go-ahead slam, Deandre Ayton was uncertain of how the play would be ruled.
In the midst of ensuing pandemonium — Phoenix Suns rookie forward Jalen Smith threw himself around Ayton while Los Angeles Clippers forward Demarcus Cousins shoved Suns shooting guard Devin Booker, among other things — Ayton carried a blank face, his mind puzzled at the situation.
DEANDRE AYTON FOR THE WIN— ESPN (@espn) June 23, 2021
UNBELIEVABLE GAME WINNER!! pic.twitter.com/tcHwtzUcty
“I wasn’t too sure if it counted,” Ayton said. “I didn’t want to be a blooper or none of that. I just wanted to just get to the next play or the refs confirm what it is.”
After extensive review, Ayton’s basket was ruled good. He turned his head to the floor, pumping his fist before the Suns forced a last-second miss from Clippers forward Paul George to secure their victory.
At that point, Phoenix’s win was determined. No more late pushes from Los Angeles or questionable calls from official Scott Foster and his staff could deter it from taking a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals.
And with his team’s 104-103 win over the Clippers in Game 2 of the series at Phoenix Suns Arena on Tuesday night, Ayton arguably removed doubts of his status as one of the best big men in the game, something expected of him since he was drafted but perhaps viewed unattainable by his critics through three NBA seasons.
Ayton finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds on 12-of-15 shooting, his fifth 20-point, 10-rebound game in these playoffs. He is just one game behind Suns legend Charles Barkley for the most games in a single postseason with at least 20 points on 65 percent shooting and 10 rebounds (five) in franchise history.
Even though there is more for Ayton and his team to accomplish, Suns coach Monty Williams openly praised his development.
“He’s starting to understand having a role doesn’t limit you,” Williams said. “You know what I’m saying? Sometimes, when you tell a guy, ‘This is your role,’ and they tend to think like, ‘I can’t do anything else.’ He just has a big one.
“I could go on and on about where he was to where he is now. He’s just turning into a really dominant player on both ends of the floor.”
In a league where small-ball lineups are increasingly encouraged — and even preferred by his opponent — Ayton has made post play sexy again. Through two games, the Suns have outscored the Clippers in the paint 114-64, largely by Ayton’s doing.
He is shooting 22-of-29 (75.8 percent) from the field and is reportedly the first player in the shot clock era (ie. since 1954) with a field goal percentage over 70 percent in any 12-game postseason span. Ayton coined his self-named moniker ‘DominAyton’ and has lived up to the title on the biggest stage.
“You could say, ‘DominAyton times 100,’” he laughed.
Asked about navigating his first playoff run, Ayton has pointed out the intensity of each game. He told reporters on Tuesday that he’s “never played so hard from the jump ball to the end, 150 percent.” That effort has been invaluable to the Suns.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Phoenix is 10.3 points better per 100 possessions when Ayton is on the floor. Defensively, they rank in the 90th percentile of playoff teams by limiting opponents to a 49.9 percent field goal percentage.
In this series, he has forced the Clippers out of their comfort zone, employing seven different lineups that have played five minutes together. Even still, they have not found an answer for Ayton’s dominance.
“Yeah, it’s different,” George said after Game 1, according to Forbes’ Shane Young. “Ayton is a little bit more agile, more of a presence down low, and a better finisher than the other bigs we faced.”
Whether it’s been through the pick-and-roll, running the floor or attacking the offensive glass, Ayton has been all over Los Angeles. And it wasn’t just on the last play of the game on Tuesday.
In the first quarter, Ayton had 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting and six rebounds. Struggling with his hands throughout his first two seasons, his refined pick-and-roll feel was on display early.
He also located seams while running the floor against the Clippers’ wings, using his agility and body control to finish over George.
And of course, there’s this.
Like a thorn in his side, Ayton’s assertiveness had long been questioned throughout his career. But that does not appear to be the case now.
Whenever he’s approaching the basket, Ayton is diving hard. No more turn-and-face jumpers — although, it did happen at times in Game 2 — in every situation around the basket. He's doing things with force.
DeAnDrE aYtOn Is NoT aGgReSsIvE eNoUgH pic.twitter.com/0N3KIoZ6GN— The Bright Side (@BrightSideSun) June 23, 2021
Part of that aggressiveness is likely due to the Suns’ addition of starting point guard Chris Paul. But Ayton said he has put in his work too.
“Being in the gym, doing the things I do consistently, approaching the game the right way,” he said. “Having dudes like C, (starting forward) Jae (Crowder) and (starting shooting guard) [Devin Booker] and everybody just being on top of me. Just showing me things and telling me things that really for longevity, that I can continue for my career to be the best player that I can be.”
Ayton has come a long way from a season ago, when he was suspended for 25 games for testing positive for a diuretic, and even from the NBA Bubble, when he missed a COVID-19 test and did not start in a crucial game for the Suns. He even concurred his buy-in is much better than before.
“I can say this: Monty definitely made me a super gym rat,” Ayton said. “There was times where I wouldn’t even come on days off. There’s a thing called, ‘Smelling the gym, touch the ball,’ at least. And he really instilled that in me where I constantly wanted to just sharpen my screws and be the best I could be.”
The Suns and their fans are getting the version of Ayton they always wanted. And he insists he’s not done yet.
“This is my team, I dominate the best way I can for this team and I try to take this team as far as I can,” he said. “Other than that, I trust my work, I trust my craft and I work very hard at it. And I’ll continue to do that.”