The play will go down as, ‘Deandre Ayton and the Valley-Oop.’
But how about the call by Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams?
Down one with 0.9 seconds left in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals on Tuesday night, there was not much that Williams and the Suns could do. From a baseline out-of-bounds position, they basically had two options: Fire a pass to a star player (i.e. Devin Booker) in the strong side corner, or run some sort of action to get a look at the rim.
Phoenix went for the latter, and it worked flawlessly.
DEANDRE AYTON FOR THE WIN— ESPN (@espn) June 23, 2021
UNBELIEVABLE GAME WINNER!! pic.twitter.com/tcHwtzUcty
For Ayton to get free, plenty of things had to go right. The Suns had to decoy the action into something that could get the Los Angeles Clippers moving, deterring their focus from the basket. Then, they had to do the dirty work — in this case, Booker’s screen — in order to get the slight spacing that Ayton needed to angle his body over Los Angeles center Ivica Zubac.
And then, of course, the pass. Suns starting forward Jae Crowder had to place the ball on the money, right where Ayton could get his hands over Zubac and the rim. It all worked well, and Phoenix got the victory.
“It’s just one of those things that happens and you’re just grateful for it,” Williams said.
Williams has been very modest on his situational play-calling this season. On Tuesday, he said he wasn’t bright enough to create the play, instead stealing it from former Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown and former Suns assistant coach Joe Prunty. But his awareness of time, personnel and game management is something that he and Suns fans should not take for granted.
With 0.9 seconds left on the clock, Phoenix had to realize the potential matchups on the floor. Given the Suns were in a precarious position, they were likely to face a bigger Clippers lineup, looking to deny the rim. We saw this with 6-foot-10 center Demarcus Cousins on Crowder out-of-bounds and Zubac pressed against Ayton at the left elbow.
Here is where the Suns took advantage of the Clippers’ positioning. For some reason, Zubac, seemingly at the discretion of Los Angeles coach Ty Lue, is more concerned about being up tight against Ayton — who shot 40.0 and 20.0 percent on shots from mid- and 3-point range, respectively, in the regular season — than protecting the rim. Ayton screens Clippers forward Paul George, allowing backup forward Cameron Johnson to curl above the break and take George, one of the league’s most versatile defenders, out of the play.
Then, the Suns bust Zubac for playing high. If he stepped back and opened his feet perpendicular to Crowder, he likely would have seen Booker arriving to set a punishing backside screen. Instead, Zubac gets stuck in the action, allowing Ayton to dive toward the rim while Clippers forward Nicolas Batum does not switch. Batum was assigned to face guard and stay with Booker, the only guy on the floor for the Suns with game-winners on his resume.
At this point, it’s on Crowder to make a successful pass and Ayton to finish. But this is where the minutia of the play comes to fruition.
Notice how Cousins is guarding the ball. His body is parallel to the baseline, denying anything coming to the strong side corner. This is great for defending a pop — think LeBron James’ game winner against the Chicago Bulls in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2015 — but there is a smaller time difference here.
Cousins’ angling gives Crowder clear vision to lob the ball over the backboard and into Ayton’s hands. But notice how it’s not just Booker’s screen that clears Ayton — it’s also Suns starting forward Mikal Bridges floating to the weak side corner, pulling Clippers guard Patrick Beverley out of a position where he can make a contest.
This is the value of having versatile wings. Beverley has to commit somewhat to Bridges, who shot 43.5 percent on right corner 3-pointers in the regular season. He hedges too much since it’s a near-impossible pass for Crowder to make from the left baseline, but there is a threat regardless.
And that action for Johnson earlier? It’s a decoy. George has to guard Johnson above the break given his shooting prowess, but the play is not for him. He simply clears out to the opposite end of the floor, taking George further away from the set-up.
The rest is a matter of execution. Crowder delivered a beautiful pass — it actually almost hit the backboard, as seen on the camera angle below — and Ayton tapped in the dunk to keep Zubac from catching him in the air. It was exactly what Williams encouraged.
"If he throws it, you gotta try to dunk it." -- Monty Williams— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) June 23, 2021
Ayton did just that pic.twitter.com/9rUoxDRUgg
With no timeouts remaining, the Clippers had to keep that lineup on the floor, limiting their spacing on a full court heave.
The rest from there is history. George couldn’t get off a shot in time, and the Suns escaped with a one-point win to take a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals.
With his go-ahead slam, Ayton finished with 24 points and 14 rebounds, 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.
After the game, Ayton credited Crowder entirely for the play’s success.
“I’ll start off by saying that’s definitely Jae’s game-winner, making a great pass over a 7-footer,” Ayton said. “Other than that, coach drew up a great play where I was in the best position, my teammates trust me and my coaches trust me. And Book set a great screen that freed me up into the lane to at least gather my feet and go up for the ball. And the rest is just off my athleticism and my talent.”
On Thursday’s pregame availability with reporters, Crowder said he was looking to target an area for Ayton’s arrival, which was enabled by the successful actions throughout the play.
“A lot of stuff had to go right,” Crowder said. “But we had other options. Obviously, DA was the first one. That was my first option, but I had other options to look at once I wasn’t going to pass the ball to DA. I had a few options, but once I saw Book get a good clip of Zubac, I knew I had a chance to get it there, he had a chance to jump cleanly and have a chance to win the game.”
Phoenix will look to take a commanding 3-0 series lead against the Clippers on Thursday night, as the series shifts to Los Angeles. The Suns will have starting point guard Chris Paul available after he missed the first two games of the series due to health and safety protocols.
Given how close the series has been — there were 30 combined lead changes and 21 times in which there were ties in Games 1 and 2 — Phoenix may need another important call from Williams. His players will expect him to deliver.
“Took everybody: Jae passing it, Deandre setting his man up, coach Monty believing in him and believing in us to run that,” Booker said. “It was a big play for us. Any time you can come out with a win in the playoffs, especially a close one like that, I think it’s big for momentum.”