PHOENIX — The ball sailed into the air. Then Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton slammed the ball into the basket.
The sell-out crowd went into a fury. Ayton just threw down a lob off an inbounds pass from Jae Crowder that clinched the Suns’ 104-103 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. At least after a lengthy video review confirmed the play’s validity and the Clippers failed to execute a full-court inbounds pass with 0.7 seconds remaining.
No wonder Ayton said he completed the best play of his three-year NBA career after finishing with 24 points, 14 rebounds and one memorable lob that gave the Suns a 2-0 series lead.
“I never played so hard from the jump ball to the end, 150%,” Ayton said. “Usually it’s like 110%, but tonight it’s 150% and it’s 150% mentally. Just the level of focus and the things you have to really pay attention to, it’s really intense.”
This moment does not just capture Ayton’s growth in his consistency, his work habits and living up to expectations as the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft. Ayton’s game-winner also captured how the Suns have emerged as a championship contender this season because of their team mindset. And it happened with All-Star guard Chris Paul missing a second consecutive game while remaining in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
Consider how Ayton first talked about his dunk. Ayton reflected on the others involved with the play that entailed Suns coach Monty Williams calling a unique play, Crowder throwing an inbounds pass and Suns guard Devin Booker setting an effective back screen to free up Ayton.
“That’s definitely Jae’s game winner, making a great pass to a 7-footer,” Ayton said. “Other than that, coach drew up a great play where I was in the best position where my coaches trust me and my teammates trust me. Book set a great screen. I gather my feet and go for the ball. The rest is just off my athleticism and talent.”
Ayton had thrown down plenty of lobs in his early career, including a first-quarter slam over Ivica Zubac. But in a game that featured 11 leads changes, eight ties, disputed calls and physical play, Ayton’s game-winner punctuated a night that required the Suns to tap into their resiliency and teamwork.
Consider how the play started. Williams drew up a play that he took from former Sixers coach Brett Brown and Suns assistant coach Joe Prunty. During Prunty’s stint with the Suns, former coach Jay Triano drew up a play in the 2016-17 season that entailed Dragan Bender connecting with Tyson Chandler on an out-of-bounds alley oop. Triano knew that, according to the NBA rulebook, offensive goaltending essentially was allowed on a play off of an inbounds pass.
“I wish I was that bright, but I’m not,” Williams said. “I steal from everyone. The players made a great pass. You put it where only DA can do it.”
So as Crowder held the ball along the baseline, Ayton made a move that helped him get closer to the basket while warding off his defender. With Zubac guarding Ayton along the nearside of the court, Ayton first cut left to set a quick screen on Clippers forward Paul George to give Cam Johnson an open 3-pointer. But with George quickly recovering, Ayton cut right to set up another screen.
“Once I set that first screen for Cam, I tried to set up Zubac to have a good angle on him,” Ayton said. “I believe once my feet touched the paint where I can go upright, left, one, two, not many people are going to be up there with me.”
First, Booker needed to set up a game-winner after usually spending his time making them. Booker could not recall any time he had ever set a screen for a final play. He did, though, for Game 2.
“He has a tremendous will and his conditioning is unmatched,” Williams said of Booker. “The ability to go set that kind of screen knowing that everybody is going to be draped all over you? It says a lot about his willingness to make a play for this team.”
Even if it required the 6-5, 206-pound Booker to sacrifice his body on the 7-0, 240-pound Zubac despite nursing a busted nose stemming from Clippers guard Patrick Beverley headbutting him. So, Booker set a backscreen on Zubac to free up Ayton to drive to the rim.
“I know they’re not going to leave me, so any type of hit that I can get to make them change direction, get DA out into some free space, for a chance to go get it,” Booker said. “But again, he had to set up his man for me to get a hit. I keep saying it, Jae Crowder’s pass, that’s a tough pass to make.”
Crowder made the pass well enough, though, for the 6-11, 250-pound Ayton to finish.
“I told Jae I’m going to catch it, and he gave me the nod,” Ayton said. “There’s no questioning after that. Once he said he was going to throw it, I said I’m going to catch it, and if something happens, something happens.”
What happened was a lot of commotion. The Clippers protested the call. Rajon Rondo, who’s highly touted for his basketball IQ, disputed the call. But Booker informed him otherwise. Ayton admittedly did not know what to think. So all they could do was wait. Then the play-by-play announcer said with a dramatic pause, “after video review, the basket counts.” The Suns and their fans went crazy.
“Per NBA rule, an offensive player can touch the ball in the cylinder during a throw in,” official Scott Foster told a pool reporter. “In this case, Ayton controlled the ball, completed the basket, and we timed it at the replay center to make sure it was less than 0.9 and that act of him touching the ball and clearing the net only took 0.2.”
Williams had admittedly never run the inbounds play extensively in practice. But he said he tried it earlier in the playoffs against the Denver Nuggets.
No matter. The Suns remained prepared because of their collective identity.
“You could sit here and talk about the plays being drawn up and all that. Our guys just made plays and stuck with it,” Williams said. “It’s just one of those things that happens where you’re just grateful for the will of our guys to stay with it.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: For Suns, Deaandre Ayton’s game-winning shot captures team mindset