The Suns are only two wins away from the NBA Finals...or do the Clippers have them right where they want them? Phoenix won an absolute thriller Tuesday night, squeaking out a 104–103 victory over Los Angeles in Game 2 of the West Finals, giving the Suns a 2–0 lead in the series. The Clippers are now down two games to none for the third straight time.
Tuesday’s back-and-forth affair effectively ended on a wild dunk from Deandre Ayton, which came off a picturesque inbounds lob from Jae Crowder. Ayton was one of many heroes for Phoenix—Cam Payne, starting for Chris Paul for the second straight game, scored a career high 29 points on 12-of-24 shooting. While Devin Booker, who busted his nose after a collision with Patrick Beverley in the third quarter, added 20 of his own.
Paul George scored 26 points to lead the Clips, though he missed seven of his eight threes. PG also clanked two late free throws with L.A. nursing a one-point lead, paving the way for Ayton’s game-winning dunk.
Here are three thoughts on the dramatic finish.
Deandre Ayton’s Magical Run Continues
Few players have acquitted themselves better than Ayton during this postseason. He outplayed a healthy Anthony Davis for stretches during Round 1. He frustrated MVP Nikola Jokić during a sweep of the Nuggets. And after putting his imprint on this series with his activity on both ends of the floor, he now has a signature playoff moment.
Ayton’s presence on the floor is important, particularly against the Clippers. Ty Lue had a lot of success going small against the Jazz, effectively nullifying the impact of Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. Ayton’s offensive prowess makes that strategy difficult to employ against the Suns, and that’s a large reason why Ivica Zubac played 34 minutes Tuesday. Zubac hasn’t been awful, and the Clips’ defense wasn’t horrendous in Game 2. But Lue is still in a tricky spot. Zubac is dropping on pick and rolls, and he has to pay serious attention to Payne and Booker when they knife into the paint. That means his attention is rarely focused on Ayton, and the Suns’ big man is adept at taking advantage, filling the lane or fighting for offensive rebounds to get easy looks. Ayton shot 12-of-15 in Game 2, hitting 12 of his last 13 shots. (His first miss was a late-clock jumper.) He took only three attempts outside of the lane, doing most of his damage attacking the rim hard while Zubac was at least half occupied with a guard.
Ayton’s energy has been a major key to Phoenix’s success in the playoffs. Ironically, Ayton rarely ever scores because a play has been drawn up for him. When Monty Williams finally did with only 0.9 seconds left, Ayton delivered a winner. (He also yanked Zubac by the jersey into Booker’s screen, we’ll just call that a veteran move.)
Is Kawhi’s Absence Getting to Paul George?
George has been largely spectacular since Kawhi Leonard went down with a knee injury four games ago. PG led the Clips to two of their biggest wins in franchise history against the Jazz, then put up a line of 34/4/5 in Game 1 of the conference finals. While I certainly don’t think it’s fair to wonder about George’s clutch bona fides even after the missed free throws, I do wonder if he’s starting to get fatigued. PG is carrying a huge burden on both ends of the floor without Leonard, and he looked gassed for stretches of Game 2. George shot 41.1% from three and 86.8% from the free-throw line during the regular season. Tuesday, he shot 1-of-8 from beyond the arc and a shocking 5-of-10 from the stripe. George appeared to be laboring at times, and his strange, late-game inbound folly when he threw a pass of Zubac’s back screamed mental fatigue. Is it possible George is starting to wear down a bit?
PG is averaging 41.5 minutes a night in four games without Kawhi, and the Clippers had an incredibly short turnaround between Game 6 of the Jazz series and Game 1 vs. Phoenix. Unfortunately for George and his teammates, there are no two-day breaks in this series. Lue has had other players step up in Leonard’s absence, such as Beverley, Reggie Jackson, and Luke Kennard. Still, the supporting may need to take on an even bigger role moving forward.
Chris Paul is Looming
Every playoff loss is devastating, and this one is especially so for the Clippers. L.A. was primed to steal a game on the road, instead the Clips now face their third 2–0 deficit of the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Suns’ best player Chris Paul, who has missed both games of the series while in the COVID protocol, has yet to play. Of course, Leonard may return too, though the status of his return is murkier than Paul’s, who reportedly could be cleared for Game 3. What we do know is Leonard is injured, while Paul seems to be getting a rare chance to rest during the postseason—which is doubly important after he hurt his shoulder in Round 1. Ultimately, for the Suns to be up two games without their best player has to be huge for their confidence. And the Clippers are now in an exponentially more desperate spot than when Kawhi first got hurt. Considering those circumstances, L.A. really needed to steal that Game 2. If Paul is able to return soon, Phoenix’s winning streak may continue to the Finals.