Paul George — who had found his legs in the fourth quarter and put the Clippers ahead 14 seconds before — opened the door when he missed two critical free throws with 8.2 seconds left that would have put the Clippers up three.
Deandre Ayton slammed through that door for the Suns.
EVERY ANGLE of Jae Crowder's pinpoint pass to Deandre Ayton to win Game 2 for the @Suns! #NBAPlayoffs #ThatsGame #NBAWCF presented by AT&T continues with Game 3 on Thursday at 9pm/et on ESPN pic.twitter.com/JMEXIj0erK
— NBA (@NBA) June 23, 2021
That dunk — no, it is not goaltending, it’s a live ball on an inbound pass and can be played over the rim — was the dramatic game-winner and handed the Suns a 104-103 Game 2 victory, and with it a commanding 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals. Game 3 is Thursday night in Los Angeles.
The Clippers kept their heads up after the game.
“They got 2 at home. It’s not a series until someone loses at home,” Reggie Jackson said.
The Clippers have earned that confidence. In the first two rounds, the Clippers went down 0-2 in their series to the Mavericks and Jazz, only to settle on the lineups that worked and came back to win both series and advance.
Good luck doing that against the Suns. This was a blown opportunity for the Clippers, one they may well regret.
Phoenix has much more versatility in their lineups than the teams the Clippers played before, they are incredibly well coached, they are young and athletic…
And they are going to get Chris Paul back this series. Reports are the Suns are optimistic he can play in Game 3 on Thursday.
So much of what went into Ayton’s dunk to win the game is why the Suns are up 2-0 in this series and on the cusp of heading to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993.
First was the brilliant play design by coach Monty Williams, who has pushed the right buttons all playoffs long. Williams knew the obscure rule that you can play a ball over the rim on an inbounds pass — watch the reaction of George and the Clippers players, they didn’t know it — and used it to his advantage.
Big time play call Coach Mont!!!!!!!!
— Chris Paul (@CP3) June 23, 2021
Then Williams put the right players in the right spots to execute the play.
First was the steady veteran presence of Jae Crowder inbounding the ball. Not only did he throw a perfect lob, watch his veteran cool after the play — he barely reacts.
Then there was the screen by Devin Booker on Ivica Zubac to create some space. The Clippers had played smart, physical defense on Booker all game long, and he finished with 20 points on 5-of-16 shooting. Booker even did his Steve Nash impression suffering a potentially broken nose on one play, a collision of heads Patrick Beverley that led to a lot of blood and three stitches for Booker (Beverley had to leave the game as well but also returned). Booker returned, and when it mattered most he put his body on the line to make a play that will not show up in the box score but was critical.
Finally, there was the bouncy Ayton with the finish for the Suns, which was perfect. He ended the night with 24 points on 12-of-15 shooting, plus he had 14 rebounds.
With one of the Suns stars at home and the other facing a focused Clipper defense, other Suns stepped up. Cameron Payne had 29, Ayton 24, and Cameron Johnson had 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting.
Tyronn Lue made some smart adjustments for the Clippers. Starting Zubac gave the Clippers better size against Ayton, and while Patrick Beverley wasn’t scoring he was pesky and impacting the game. Luke Kennard gave the Clippers 10 points, all in the fourth quarter.
Paul George finished with 26, scoring 10 in the fourth quarter, including a string of buckets to put the Clippers ahead. But when given a chance to nearly shut the door on the Suns in the final seconds, he missed two free throws.
Down the stretch, the Clippers missed Kawhi Leonard on both ends of the court. He remains out with a sprained right knee, and while the Clippers are making game-to-game announcements about his availability, nobody expects him to return this series from what is reportedly an ACL sprain.
In the end, these Suns have executed better and right now look more talented than the Clippers. And Phoenix gets Chris Paul back. The Clippers are at their best with their backs against the wall, but even this may be too much.