The pass angle from Jae Crowder was pristine. The screen from Devin Booker (and his freshly stitched nose) was gutsy. And the leaping finish from Deandre Ayton was jaw-dropping.
In a flash, the Phoenix Suns had stunningly seized a one-point advantage on an out-of-bounds play that had started with less than a second remaining on the game clock. A lengthy officials’ review then confirmed the basket, sending a Phoenix Suns Arena crowd that has been raucous throughout the postseason into an absolute frenzy.
That play quite literally lifted the Suns to an instant-classic 104-103 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers Tuesday night to push their lead to 2-0 in the Western Conference Finals.
“Jae set it up right there perfectly,” Ayton said. “… I tried to set up (Ivica) Zubac for Book to have a good angle on him. And I believe once my feet touch the paint where I can go off right-left, one-two, I mean, not many people are gonna be up there with me.”
It was the exclamation point on a chaotic final minute of a series that has already become a thriller.
The Clippers erased a six-point Suns lead with less than three minutes to go, with a Paul George layup giving Los Angeles a 101-100 edge with 34.3 seconds remaining. Booker answered with a quick pull-up jumper, but then George hit a 21-footer with 22.2 seconds to play.
On the Suns’ next possession, an official review determined that Booker last touched a ball that slipped out of bounds with 9.3 seconds to go. But when the Suns were forced to foul, George missed both free throws to keep the Clippers’ lead at 103-102.
Out of a timeout, Mikal Bridges missed a corner 3-pointer with 3.3 seconds remaining, but the loose ball went off the Clippers to set up Ayton’s wild game-winner.
Suns coach Monty Williams said his team had never walked through that specific alley-oop play, and called it a blend between a play former Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown used to run when Williams was an assistant on that staff in 2018-19 and a Tyson Chandler game-winner during the Suns’ 2017-18 season.
“I wish I was that bright, but I’m not,” Williams said. “I steal from everybody.”
The game-winner was the first of Ayton’s NBA career, and capped another dominant postseason outing. He finished with 24 points on 12-of-15 shooting and 14 rebounds, his eighth double-double of the playoffs.
Phoenix also got an outstanding performance from Cameron Payne, who scored a career-high 29 points and added nine assists in his second consecutive start in place of All-Star Chris Paul (health and safety protocols).
This was the Suns’ ninth consecutive playoff victory to extend a franchise record.
Game 3 is Thursday night in Los Angeles.
WHAT THEY ARE SAYING:
Cam Johnson on his team's resilience: "I'm really proud of this team. I'm really grateful to be a part of it. It's something really special and it's nothing I take for granted at all."
Devin Booker on Ayton’s game-winner: “Even talking to (Rajon) Rondo at halfcourt after the (play), he was like, ‘It don’t count.’ I was like, ‘I’ve seen this movie before (with Chandler’s game-winner). It counts.’ So it’s an incredible play, incredible execution on all ends.”
Monty Williams on the win: “It was just one of those things that happens where you’re just grateful for it. The will of our guys to just stay with it, I don’t think we played great tonight, but we made enough plays to win the game … It was unreal execution at the end, and for us, the mental stamina to just stay in there and not give up when it looked like it wasn’t gonna go our way.”
Booker on his nose injury that required stiches: “My first time was seeing it was after the game. … It’s a little crooked.”
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Cameron Payne: 29 points, 9 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks
Deandre Ayton: 24 points, 14 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 block
Devin Booker: 20 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds
Dario Šarić: 11 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists
Cam Johnson: 11 points, 3 rebounds, 1 steals
Johnson and Bridges are now known as “The Twins,” a nickname coined by Deandre Ayton because they are always around each other and play a similar position and style. After forming their initial bond heading into the 2019-20 season, Johnson’s and Bridges’ relationship flows from the locker room onto the court and epitomizes the Suns’ necessary trust, togetherness and overall synergy that has led them to the Western Conference Finals.
On June 20, 2019, Jones helped launch the construction of the Suns’ roster now up 2-0 in the Western Conference Finals. And on June 20, 2021, Jones was named NBA Executive of the Year. What a difference two years can make.
It takes talent, relentless drive and togetherness to become one of the NBA’s final four teams remaining in the postseason. But the Suns’ ability to reach this level of consistent, confident and clinical execution, particularly while winning a franchise-record seven consecutive playoff games, can be directly tied to their willingness to embrace the belief that everything counts. That attention to detail becomes even more critical with an NBA Finals berth on the line when Phoenix’s series against the Los Angeles Clippers begins Sunday afternoon, especially with Paul missing at least Game 1 while in health and safety protocols.
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
Craig is a versatile defender and willing rebounder on both ends. He will dive for 50/50 balls and flash his athleticism via deflections and blocks. He has gotten more offensive opportunities with the Suns as an outside shooter and authoritative finisher off cuts and in transition. Now, Craig is showcasing all of those attributes during a playoff series against his former team while providing a jolt to the Suns’ championship aspirations.
‘THERE’S NOTHING LIKE IT’
That electric crowd is goosebumps-inducing in person and takes television viewers aback, prompting local pride and national attention. It has been praised by young Suns experiencing the postseason for the first time and veterans who have been through countless playoff games alike. That’s why it’s reasonable to wonder if — or conclude that — the Suns have quickly created the NBA’s best home-court advantage during these playoffs.
The formal definition of the word “relentless” is “oppressively constant; incessant.” That descriptor has followed the Suns throughout this season, applying to their on-court style of play and their everyday habits while navigating this unique season. Knocking off the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs’ first round required a relentless approach, which now carries the Suns into the Western Conference Semifinals against the Denver Nuggets.
“It’s just how the guys are built, individually and as a collective group,” Booker said. “If you go down the list of all the players, there’s nobody that’s scared of the moment. There’s nobody that hasn’t prepared for this moment. This isn’t new. This is how we’ve been playing for most of the season. We’ve had ups and downs, but we’re a confident team and we play hard all the way through.”
Now in his third season as general manager of the Phoenix Suns, James Jones has taken his knowledge of what it takes to win a ring and is building a roster of like-minded players with high-IQs, unselfish personalities and relentless attitudes both on the court and behind the scenes. The result is Phoenix’s dramatic rise over the past two seasons. The Suns went 51-21 during the 2020-21 regular season, finished second in a loaded Western Conference and enters Tuesday with the opportunity to take a 3-2 lead in their first-round playoff series against the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Cameron Payne plays with a fiery passion that somehow looks both free and furious, prompting some to compare him to the “haboob” dust storms that disrupt the Valley air during the summer monsoon season. It’s a fitting style for Payne, a former lottery draft pick who had his NBA career stripped away in early 2019 and is now savoring his shot on a Suns team with championship aspirations.
“To be on the road and have your fans cheering for you, especially when you make a run, is pretty cool," head coach Monty Williams said. "We’re thankful, grateful and we’re fighting our tails off to make those fans that we have in this environment have something to cheer for.”
Whether traveling from Phoenix or different parts of California, Suns.com gathered personal stories from six Suns fans making the trip and cheer on their favorite team.
LIVING UP TO THE MOMENT
Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson showed consistent effort all season, preparing them for the bright lights. They lived up to the moment in Game 1 and, in some cases, churned out historic stat lines — even during an intense game complete with the magnitude of the franchise’s first playoff game since 2010, a jarring injury to their Hall of Fame point guard and a scuffle that resulted in a teammate being ejected.
There are enough “Montyisms” for Monty Williams to write a compilation book — which Devin Booker has publicly and privately suggested to his coach. Even while repeating them to players, Cam Johnson said, Williams will preface by acknowledging some might call them “corny” or “goofy” or “coach speak.” Yet Johnson says those mantras are “big-time anchors” that have kept the Suns emotionally centered during the franchise’s emphatic rise to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. They create personal connections with players by instilling belief and relaying constructive advice. They provide reminders that resurface in the head and heart when one least expects it, and can apply to both basketball and life.
RALLY THE VALLEY
Suns.com gathered personal stories from 13 people connected to the organization. Some are longtime fans, and others are long-time employees in behind-the-scenes roles. Some are community partners who work with the Suns to make residents’ lives a little brighter. Some are natives, and some have returned home.
“You look around the league at some teams, and not everybody has a vibe like this or an energy like this throughout,” Booker said. “I always say it’s a great environment to get better in. When you have everybody supporting you, everybody being honest with you — those are the same people that can give me constructive criticism at any point in the game, and I’m listening to them — that’s the name of our group, man.”
Culture, chemistry and overall spirit are intangible qualities that cannot be measured by traditional stats or advanced analytics. But players and coaches know it — feel it — when those attributes have manifested within a team.