PHOENIX — Deandre Ayton couldn’t stop smiling after the Phoenix Suns‘ 104-103 win on Tuesday gave them a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference finals over the LA Clippers.
The big man wore a permagrin as he basked in the joy that came from dunking home the go-ahead bucket in the game’s final second, finishing one of the most dramatic alley-oops in NBA playoff history, but he didn’t want any of the credit.
“I’ll start off by saying that’s definitely Jae [Crowder’s] game winner, making a great pass for a 7-footer,” Ayton said after his dunk with 0.7 seconds left lifted his final line to 24 points on 12-for-15 shooting and 14 rebounds.
Seemingly no one on the Suns wanted the solo spotlight as the franchise drew within two wins of its first finals appearance since 1993.
Not Suns coach Monty Williams for drawing up the play. He said he stole parts of former Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown’s and former Phoenix coach Joe Prunty’s playbooks to cobble the idea together.
“I wish I was that bright,” he said, “but I’m not.”
Not point guard Cameron Payne, who kept it that close to begin with by putting up a career-best 29 points while filling in for Chris Paul, along with nine assists and zero turnovers.
“I’m just trying to hold it on until CP is back,” he said.
Not Suns star Devin Booker, who played with a swollen face and crooked nose after catching a head-butt from Patrick Beverley in the third quarter that bloodied him up and required three stitches. He set the screen on the Clippers’ 7-foot, 240-pound center Ivica Zubac to get Ayton open for that last-second lob.
“It feels better now,” he said of his nose afterward, unsure if it was broken. “If we would have lost, I think it would hurt a little bit more. It’s good.”
And not Crowder for making the pass. He didn’t even speak to reporters afterward, when he surely would have fielded questions about his pinpoint delivery, sailing the ball from his spot on the baseline and over the basket for Ayton to catch it.
“He put it where only DA could get it,” Williams said of Crowder. “It was great awareness by him.”
It was a team win from the team that has been as complete as any other during the 2021 playoffs, even with the absence of Paul thus far in the conference finals, out because of the league’s health and safety protocols.
Williams said the poise Phoenix showed leading up to the winning play — one that has already been dubbed “The Valley Oop” by NBA TV’s Matt Winer — was what really gave the Suns a chance.
Because before they executed the alley-oop, they first had to block out the missed opportunity to go ahead with 9.3 seconds left when Booker, with Beverley draped all over him, lost the ball out of bounds.
And then, when Paul George missed two free throws with 8.2 seconds left, the Suns’ Mikal Bridges had to secure the defensive rebound to give Phoenix the final possession to pull off the final flush.
“It’s just one of those things that happens where you’re just grateful for,” Williams said. “The will of our guys to stay with it. I didn’t think we played great tonight, but we made enough plays to win the game.”
Meanwhile, the Clippers failed to capitalize on a game that was there for the taking, and now trail 2-0 for a third straight series this postseason.
“This game, I’ve played a lot of games in this league, this one’s hard,” said Beverley, who got the start in Game 2. “This one goes up there. This is a hard game to kind of swallow because you look at this game, I mean, we got this game won, you know.
“But we’ve been in the trenches before. We respond well in the trenches. We’ll respond well. We always do.”
The Clippers are already the only team in NBA history to overcome multiple 2-0 deficits and win in the same postseason. They lost the first two at home in the first round before overcoming Dallas in seven games, and they lost the first two in Utah before beating the Jazz four straight times.
“Well, with this team, if anything, we’re more confident,” George said. “Every series we’ve been down 0-2, we’ve handed over two wins to the other team.”
Without the injured Kawhi Leonard for a fourth straight game due to a sprained right knee, George led the Clippers again and put them in position to steal Game 2 on the road. He scored 26 points and had six rebounds and six assists. George scored nine of his points in the last 2:41 to erase a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit.
But with a chance to give them a three-point lead with 8.2 seconds left, George surprisingly missed both free throws despite coming into this game making 89.2% from the free throw line this postseason.
“I’m not going to put too much on that,” George said afterward. “Obviously it was an opportunity that was missed. Pat made an unbelievable play that put me in position to extend the lead. I’m always confident at the free throw line. I’ve always been very successful in clutch moments at the free throw line.”
Clippers coach Ty Lue said George shouldn’t be blamed for this loss.
“He’s all right,” Lue said. “It’s part of the game. It happens. It’s not his fault. Without him we wouldn’t be in the game anyway. Made some big plays down the down the stretch and they made a big play at the end to win the game.”
A big play that Ayton said typified the type of sacrifice the Suns have regularly have made for one another in their pursuit of the championship.
“We don’t know who’s going to drop 30, we don’t know who’s going to hit the game winner. That’s how this team is,” he said. “We play for each other, and the key thing we do is togetherness. We try not to break that.”
ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk contributed to this report.