Much like the plays you see on Broadway, this one had a cast of characters that executed their specific roles right down to the thrilling and climatic moment of truth when it was finally and spectacularly over.
There was a coach … and an inbound passer … and a screen-setter … and a perfect foil … and a pass-catcher … and a basket … and a crowd that of course gave the ending what it deserved, a standing ovation.
It happened in a flash, so swiftly and deftly in this Game 2 that the referees had to check the replay just to make sure their own trained eyes weren’t deceived. Oh, yes, the Suns actually did that. They stunned the Clippers 104-103 on a last-second winner Tuesday that gave them a 2-0 series lead and the play must be carefully dissected to savor and capture the full flavor.
First, the setup: Paul George missed a pair of free throws with 8.2 seconds left and the Clippers up 103-102. Had he made both, the Clippers stood a solid chance of avoiding another 2-0 hole to start a playoff series. Had he made one, the odds would still be in their favor to at least go into overtime.
But he went clank-clank, and the Paul George Playoff Redemption Tour bus suddenly experienced an untimely and unfortunate breakdown in the middle of the highway.
Next, the blown shot: Suns guard Devin Booker, trapped and harassed all night by a Clippers team that learned its lesson from his 40-point triple-double two nights earlier, was forced to throw the ball to Mikal Bridges, who missed a wide open corner 3-pointer with 3.3 seconds left. Lucky for Phoenix, the shot missed, then tipped the fingers of Terance Mann and sailed out of bounds. They had one more chance. Timeout.
And now, with 0.9 seconds remaining, here’s the play and those who pulled it off (and those who failed to prevent it):
Monty Williams was a Coach of the Year Award finalist (he lost to Tom Thibodeau of the New York Knicks) who has received deserved back-slaps since arriving last year for bringing credibility and wisdom to a Suns’ franchise desperate for both. Only enough time remained for a catch-and-release, so diagramming an isolation play — the overwhelming technique of choice among coaches today — was out of the question.
“You got to try and dunk it,” he told center Deandre Ayton in the timeout huddle.
Yes, the only sensible solution was using Ayton to somehow get close enough to the rim for a point-blank bucket. Everyone knew that. Even the Clippers. They assigned Ivica Zubac on Ayton. They put another center, DeMarcus Cousins, on the inbound passer, Jae Crowder.
Here’s the problem for the Clippers: Cousins, who’s had a pair of major surgeries over the last two years, can’t jump. And on this play, he didn’t. Nor did he use his arms to protect the passing lane to the basket.
Also, Zubac is notoriously slow-footed. When Devin Booker applied a screen with his hip, Zubac never saw it coming and suddenly, after grabbing a fistful of Zubac’s jersey for leverage (the refs missed it), Ayton slipped free and was open.
"DA – if he throws it, you gotta try to dunk it. Okay?"
— NBA (@NBA) June 23, 2021
Even with all that, the pass had to skim past the side of the backboard and be thread-needle perfect. And it was, right from Crowder’s hands to Ayton’s, which met the ball inches above the rim for the dunk; there is no goal-tending on an out-of-bounds pass.
And so, to recap the roles: Williams scribbled the right play on the eraser board, Booker gave the right screen, Crowder threw the right pass and Ayton’s soft hands had the right touch. There was no room for error or else everything would’ve collapsed. Speaking of that, meanwhile for the Clippers: George’s missed free throws, Cousins’ feet of cement and Zubac’s slow reaction spelled doom for LA.
This play, this textbook picture of perfection, will now serve as a manual on how to win a game for anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation.
“You can sit here and talk about the plays being drawn up,” Williams said, “but our guys just make plays and stuck with it.”
So here we are. The Suns, on a franchise-record nine-game playoff winning streak, are halfway to The Finals. They’re at this point without the help of Chris Paul, who missed yet another game of this series because of Health and Safety protocols (but is expected to return for Game 3). Booker struggled from a tough night (5-for-16 shooting with seven turnovers) and a cut on the bridge of his nose from a third-quarter tête-à-tête with Patrick Beverley.
But Booker doesn’t usually lose his jumper for very long. Also, the Suns were rescued by the game of Cameron Payne’s life (career-high 29 points). It wasn’t long ago that Payne was playing in China and his NBA career claim to fame was a goofy pregame dance with Russell Westbrook when both were teammates in Oklahoma City.
The Clippers are trailing 2-0 for the third time in the playoffs, and blew a golden opening to steal a game before Paul returns. Now they’ll return home with George buried under an avalanche of missed shots and those free throws in Game 2. Oh, and Kawhi Leonard is still mending from a knee sprain that could prevent his return.
It’s all because of a play that will register in Suns’ history right along with Gar Heard’s turnaround jumper at the buzzer that forced overtime against the Celtics in Game 5 of The 1976 Finals.
They squandered their chance at that championship. If nothing else, in this latest journey to capture that elusive title, this Play Of Perfection keeps hope alive.
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