One of the greatest playoff moments in Phoenix Suns franchise history, the “Valley-Oop,” was a microcosm of Monty Williams’ influence and Deandre Ayton’s growth.
Historically, the Phoenix Suns don’t win games like Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.
A poorly officiated contest in the trenches, where the last 90 seconds of game time took 33 minutes in real-time? Against a more experienced team from Los Angeles? In the playoffs? Throughout the Suns’ tortured, 52-year history, any time this franchise needed even the slightest bit of good fortune in pursuit of its first-ever championship, Lady Luck slammed the door shut.
Steve Nash’s bloody, disfigured nose. A Joe Johnson injury. An Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw suspension here. A Kobe Bryant airball, missed boxout and Ron Artest game-winner over there. Phoenix’s playoff history has been littered with bitter moments that once stood on the edge of a knife before slicing the Suns’ title hopes in half.
Game 2 against the LA Clippers had a similar feel, complete with Devin Booker doing his best Nash impression with what looked like a broken, swollen nose. While the Suns’ youngsters proved in Game 1 they were capable of performing without Chris Paul just as they had all season with him, the absence of his command over the game in those final minutes was once again on display Tuesday night. Phoenix’s five-point lead with 1:34 to play quickly turned into a 6-0 Clippers run, with Paul George’s bucket in transition giving LA a one-point lead with 31 seconds remaining.
Devin Booker responded with a quick mid-range jumper of his own, but George fired right back to restore the Clippers’ lead with 22 seconds left. The Suns turned it over, George was fouled and it seemed inevitable the Suns would have to go for 3 just to tie the game on a night where they had shot 6-for-26 from long range.
But then PG missed the first free throw. And then he missed the second. And then Phoenix secured the rebound, called timeout, and gave the should’ve-been-Coach-of-the-Year a chance to draw up a final play. Mikal Bridges missed an open corner 3 on the ensuing possession and the loose ball went out of bounds. The Suns would have one more chance, but only 0.9 seconds remained.
The “Valley-Oop” was a microcosm of Monty Williams’ influence and Deandre Ayton’s growth
It was a game the Suns probably shouldn’t have won. They were outscored by 21 points from 3-point range, Devin Booker struggled to the tune of 5-of-16 shooting and 7 turnovers, and Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges scored a combined 7 points on 2-of-10 shooting. Scott Foster dominated the second half more than any player on either team, replay reviews disrupted any flow the game might have had, and with everything seemingly conspiring against Phoenix, it was the exact type of game that seemed destined to be the long line of Suns “what-ifs.”
But “resiliency,” “next-man-up mentality” and “poise” aren’t just cliche buzzwords for Monty and his team. They’re embedded in the Suns’ new culture — enhanced by the arrivals of CP3 and Crowder, yes, but deeply engrained in the mindset of Phoenix’s youngsters since before last year’s trip to the NBA bubble. And all of it showed up again at the end of Game 2.
“The will of our guys to just stay with it, I didn’t think we played great tonight, but we made enough plays to win the game,” Williams said. “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.”
Williams was giving credit to his players the way he has all season, but he inadvertently tapped into the influence he’s had on this team since he first arrived in Phoenix in 2019. Any coach can throw around fancy words like “resiliency” or motivational sayings like “everything you want is on the other side of hard,” but to get his players to buy into it, and to have his younger guys looking as composed as seasoned playoff vets in their first postseason run? That’s special.
So no one should be surprised when Williams drew up an absolute gem of a final inbounds play that harkened back to a Tyson Chandler game-winning alley-oop from four years ago:
All season long, Williams has remained humble. Whenever probed about Coach of the Year consideration, what he’s helped build in Phoenix or anything about his own qualities as an NBA head coach, he’s always deferred to his players, redistributing credit to their work ethic and willingness to embrace his quirky “Monty-isms.” That humility and head-down, lunchpail approach is infectious, and it’s the reason a young Suns team playing without Chris Paul eked out a Game 2 win when it felt like all was lost.
Williams’ influence was seen long before those final few minutes of mental toughness though. It manifested when Dario Saric, who Monty stuck with through his struggles in the first two rounds, paid off that patience with 11 points in 13 minutes on Tuesday. It’s the reason his faith in E’Twaun Moore after a shaky Game 1 was rewarded with a more even performance in Game 2. And it’s part of why Cameron Payne — who was out of the league a year ago until he got the call from Monty to join the Suns in the NBA bubble — filled in for Paul with a career-high 29 points and 9 assists with zero turnovers.
This team is buying everything that Monty is selling. He connects with, relates to and believes in all his players, and it’s been a crucial part of their success and their very DNA.
“We do have a young team and a lot of young guys who are playing in situations they’ve never been in before,” Williams acknowledged. “But you can only get the experience by going through it.”
Which brings us to the man of the hour, Deandre Ayton.
Six months ago, “Why doesn’t Ayton dunk more?” was a legitimate question. A seven-footer registering seven dunks in his first 11 games was fairly embarrassing, especially as he avoided contact and the free-throw line when he got the ball in the paint. Even as recently as March, when he was getting benched in fourth quarters, Ayton was maddeningly inconsistent with his aggression on the offensive end and his focus on the defensive end.
Now, the guy whose resolve was questioned for not dunking more is throwing down game-winning alley-oops in the Western Conference Finals.
“I tried to set up 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,” Ayton said.
That kind of confidence exuded in his response about finishing strong around the basket is a stark contrast from even a few months ago. Monty’s influence, the Suns’ burgeoning culture, Chris Paul’s arrival, Jae Crowder’s leadership and, most importantly, Ayton’s receptiveness to constant feedback have yielded a hardened, laser-focused, dominant version of DA. All season long he’s had the coaching staff, the Suns’ veterans and Booker in his ear. Instead of coiling up or lashing out at that kind of constant feedback, he’s embraced it, internalized it and harnessed it.
Heading into the playoffs, how Ayton would respond to playoff intensity was the Suns’ biggest question mark. Twelve games into this journey to the conference finals and possibly beyond, he’s been their biggest exclamAYTON point.
“I don’t wanna get too ahead of myself, but his growth, continuously, through every game from Game 1 of the playoffs, I feel like he flipped the switch and he turned it on and he doesn’t wanna look back,” Booker said. “He feels his confidence is there and he understands how much of a force he is and I think he’s figuring out his capabilities.”
In his first trip to the postseason, Ayton is averaging 16.3 points per game (trailing only Booker) and a team-high 10.8 rebounds per game. He’s shooting an absurd 72.6 percent from the field, and while his game-winning “Valley-Oop” will be the play everyone remembers, the Suns wouldn’t have even been in that game if not for the big fella’s 24 points and 14 rebounds on 12-of-15 shooting.
The fact that he’s staying effective on the court against a small-ball Clippers team that ran Rudy Gobert off the floor shouldn’t be lost on anyone. His steady progress on the defensive end has been one of the most encouraging storylines in Phoenix over the last two seasons, but even heading into the playoffs, no one expected him to hold his own against the likes of Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic and now small-ball lineups designed to test his perimeter mobility.
Ayton has not only held his own; he’s excelled. Jokic put up gargantuan numbers in the second round, but DA stifled his effectiveness and held the league MVP to subpar shooting. He bested a vulnerable Anthony Davis and has destroyed both Andre Drummond and DeMarcus Cousins whenever he’s had the chance — and that’s saying nothing of poor Ivica Zubac, who was on the receiving end of two wicked Ayton alley-oops, including the game-winner.
And yet, as easy as it’d be for all this success to get to the head of a No. 1 overall pick, it’s Ayton’s sacrifice and humility on this team that stand out. A young player who came into the league with a supposedly subpar work ethic and immature outlook has blossomed into a dedicated, hard-working monster of a two-way player. He’s cleaning up around the basket, and the scary thing is, he’s been Phoenix’s second-leading playoff scorer despite most of his offensive arsenal still currently untapped.
“He’s starting to understand having a role doesn’t limit you,” Williams explained. “Sometimes when you tell a guy, ‘This is your role,’ they tend to think like, ‘I can’t do anything else.’ He just has a big one. Defensively, the rebounding and then the ability to go at the end and get that ball where nobody else could go get it says a lot about his mental maturity.”
“I can say this, Monty definitely made me a super gym rat,” Ayton said. “There was times where I wouldn’t even come in on days off. He has a thing called ‘smell the gym, touch the ball at least,’ and he really instilled that in me where I constantly want to just sharpen my screws and just be the best I can be. Knowing the type of level and the type of play style we have to come in night in and night out and to be consistent in what I do, I have to be in the gym. Just to see the results now at a high level and where we are right now, I don’t wanna get out the gym.”
Ayton has bought into his role as the guy who finishes in the paint, sets good screens, hits the offensive glass, close out stops with rebounds, communicates and defends well on the other end. There’s an occasional mid-range jumper peppered in every now and then, but the Suns have simplified DA’s role, asking him to take something of a backseat on offense compared to other first-overall picks while focusing on maximizing what they need from him to succeed.
And he’s doing it. And he’s absolutely crushing it.
So to be able to change his mindset and produce like this, in his first postseason at the tender age of 22, as a No. 1 overall pick who is constantly compared to Luka Doncic and Trae Young, all while constantly shifting praise to his teammates in a Monty-esque way?
That too is special.
“That’s definitely Jae’s game-winner, making a great pass over a seven-footer,” Ayton said of the final play. “Other than that, coach drew up a great play where I was in the best position. My teammates trust me and my coaches trust me. And Book set a great screen that freed me up into the lane to at least gather my feet and go up for the ball.”
Regardless of what happens next in the 2021 NBA Playoffs, the “Valley-Oop” will endure the test of time — not just because it was an iconic moment for the Suns, or because it was a beautifully drawn-up and executed play, or even because it came in a Western Conference Finals game.
Rather, it’s because it was emblematic of the imprint Monty Williams has left on this new chapter of Suns basketball, and how that mindset rubbing off on Ayton provided this franchise with the type of rare playoff triumph it doesn’t often get to enjoy.