The Suns won more than a playoff game on Tuesday night. They defeated their worst nightmare.
They beat the clock. They beat the officials. They beat the ghosts from postseasons past. They beat a Clippers team that bloodied and tormented Devin Booker.
And somewhere in Southern California, after watching his teammates post their ninth consecutive playoff victory, Chris Paul surely had a message for referee nemesis Scott Foster:
Ball Don’t Lie.
Rarely does a slog of a basketball game yield such delirium and ecstasy. The final moments of the Suns’ 104-103 victory featured gut-wrenching delays, replay reviews and controversial whistles. It featured a crunch-time choke job from Clippers star Paul George. It culminated in another masterpiece play design from Monty Williams, an exquisite inbounds pass from Jae Crowder with less than one second left, perfectly feeding a soaring Deandre Ayton at the rim.
The ensuing dunk and crowd eruption nearly blew the roof off the arena. It commemorated one of the most influential, unbelievable plays in franchise history.
“I’ll start off by saying, that’s definitely Jae’s game-winner, making a great pass over a 7-footer,” Ayton said. “And coach drew up a great play.”
Williams also dialed up a beautiful inbounds play that led to a pivotal Booker dunk in the closing moments of Game 1, but wanted no part of any credit.
“You can sit here and talk about the plays being drawn up and all that,” Williams said. “Our guys just made plays and stuck with it. When the whistle didn’t go our way, when the ball went out on Book, I thought we had real good poise.”
And who would’ve ever thought Booker would be used to set a pick on a game-winning play?
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Booker said.
At various points, Game 2 threatened to conspire against the Valley’s championship dreams: there was the presence of Foster, whom Paul believes carries a personal vendetta against the celebrated point guard. As a result, every questionable whistle raised the tension level inside Suns Arena.
There was the bloody gash on Booker’s nose, eerily similar to an injury that removed Steve Nash from a key playoff game against the Spurs. There was the infuriating flop from Patrick Beverley, who hounded and harassed Booker into one of his worst games of the postseason.
But the Suns simply refuse to lose. Ayton had another beastly game, scoring 24 points on 12-of-15 shooting and adding 14 rebounds. He called the game-winning dunk the best play of his career, even though it was reviewed for an interminable length of time, leading Valley fans to hope for the best and fear the worst.
“The celebration was a little bit shaky because I wasn’t too sure what I did,” Ayton said. “I was so anxious. I was really stressed. It was a lot.”
It was also the second outrageous alley-oop feed from Crowder to Ayton in Game 2, and the perfect reward for a player who is ascending into an NBA star.
“Incredible, incredible execution,” Booker said. “Again, Jae Crowder … that’s a tough pass.”
So the drama continues. Booker might have a broken nose, possibly necessitating a mask (“It’s a little crooked, so we’ll see). There were reports that Paul might be cleared for a Game 3 return in Los Angeles, and not a minute too soon. Meanwhile, the legend of Cam Payne continued to grow.
At rock bottom, the Suns guard had to drag his suitcases through the streets of China because no one from his new team bothered to pick him up from the airport. Payne scored 29 points in 37 minutes, helping the Suns navigate a ragged offensive performance. And once he again, he showed up for a postgame press conference wearing that legendary hat with the upside-down “LA” logo.
The Clippers have already rallied from a pair of 2-0 series deficits in the 2021 postseason. They are no strangers to adversity. But this time, they must reconcile those errant free throws from George, miscues that felt like more than poetic justice.
Combined with Ayton’s game-winning dunk, it might spell the end of the Clippers, who must realize they are up against an emotional juggernaut. They must conjure up four wins in five games against a Suns team that seems unbreakable. Even on a bad night.