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Suns vs. Clippers: Deandre Ayton silences critics with dominant playoff run fueled by newfound work ethic

CBS Sports logo CBS Sports 6/23/2021 Colin Ward-Henninger
a group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera © Provided by CBS Sports

Perhaps one of the most important plays in Phoenix Suns' history, the "Valley Oop" as it was dubbed in the wee hours following the team's 104-103 Game 2 Western Conference finals win over the Los Angeles Clippers, was completed by a player who didn't entirely grasp what he had just done.

Deandre Ayton, the 7-foot, gregarious Bahamian, admitted that when he snatched Jae Crowder's inbounds pass from above the cylinder and slammed it through the rim with less than a second remaining, he thought he had pulled a fast one on the officials.

"The celebration and reaction was a little shaky because I wasn't too sure what I did," Ayton said of the game-winning play. "I wasn't too sure if it counted. I didn't want it to be a blooper or none of that. I just wanted to get to the next play, or the refs confirm what it is. I was just so anxious. I was really stressed."

The play was perfectly legal, since you cannot be called for goaltending on a live-ball inbounds pass, and it gave the Suns their ninth consecutive postseason win, putting the Clippers in an 0-2 hole heading back to L.A. The heroic dunk was just the latest in a series of impressive accomplishments during a breakout postseason for Ayton. So far in his first playoff run, Ayton has averaged 16.3 points and 10.8 rebounds on incredible 72.6 percent field goal shooting.

The big man was absolutely brilliant in Game 2, putting up 24 points and 14 rebounds on 12-for-15 shooting, as the Clippers continued to try different tactics to slow him down. They started small in Game 1 -- with the same unit that had just undressed reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert to close out the previous round -- and all 10 of Ayton's field goals came in the paint, while he punished them on the offensive boards.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue switched things up in Game 2, starting traditional center Ivica Zubac, but Ayton had similar success. Not only did Ayton still dominate the paint, but he also showed a feathery touch on his mid-range jumper -- something that separates him from a center like Gobert.


Video: Watch Deandre Ayton's Game 2 winning dunk from inside the arena (Yahoo! Sports)

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Ayton's shooting ability was part of the intriguing profile that made him the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, but he's significantly curbed his midrange attempts this season in favor of a more efficient, rim-running, lob-catching role. Last season, Ayton averaged 3.7 mid-range attempts per game, making 36.7 percent of them. This season, that dramatically dropped to 1.4 attempts per game, and he hit them at a 40 percent clip. So far this postseason, he's taken just 10 total mid-range jumpers, according to NBA.com, and three of them came in Game 2 against the Clippers.

This was a huge transition for Ayton, an extremely jovial, confident young man who came into the league expected to be the No. 2 star next to Devin Booker. At times during his young career, Ayton's work ethic and commitment to winning have already been questioned. The addition of Chris Paul and head coach Monty Williams, however, have brought the best out of the prized prospect. After the game-winner on Tuesday, Ayton was refreshingly honest about his previous shortcomings, and how Williams helped break him of bad habits.

"Monty definitely made me a super gym rat," Ayton said. "There was times where I wouldn't even come in on days off. He used a thing called, 'smell the gym,' touch the ball at least, and he really instilled that in me where I constantly wanted to just sharpen my skills and be the best player I could be.

"Knowing the type of level and the type of play style we have to come with night in and night out and to be consistent in what I do, I have to be in the gym. Just to see results now at a high level and where we are right now, I don't want to get out of the gym. That's what he really instilled in me, and I kept it going."

Ayton being honest with himself about his work ethic and taking the personal responsibility to improve shows incredible maturity for a 22-year-old who could easily be complaining about getting fewer offensive touches. Nowhere is his renewed commitment more evident than on defense, where he tussled with Anthony Davis in the first round, Nikola Jokic in the second and now has to navigate the complicated coverages and strategies against the different shapes and sizes of the Clippers' lineups.

Jokic, the league's MVP, heaped praise upon Ayton, first saying that Ayton "guards me really well," then leaving him a signed jersey with "U are beast!!! Keep up the good work!!!" written on the numbers in permanent marker. That kind of acclaim doesn't come lightly, and it's the result of Ayton's energy and effort reaching a new level this season.

"Every game feels like my last. I never played so hard from the jump ball to the end, 150 percent," Ayton said after Game 2. "Usually it's like 110, but tonight it's 150 percent and it's 150 percent mentally. Just the level of focus and the things you have to really pay attention to, it's really intense."

This postseason run has helped establish Ayton as one of the gems of the 2018 class, which also features playoff standouts Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Michael Porter Jr. He still may ultimately fall a rung below those players when all is said and done, but Ayton has certainly put himself in the same conversation with what he's doing for Phoenix. His stock will only continue to rise if the Suns are able to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy in a few weeks.

"At the end of the day we're all different players," Ayton said of the comparisons to Doncic and Young. "I'm a seven-footer, a big man and [they're] two point guards. I don't know what you can compare it to. Me, I play as hard as I can. This is my team. I dominate the best way I can for this team and I try to take this team as far as I can. Other than that, I trust my work, I trust my work ethic, I trust my craft, and I work very hard at it, and I'll continue to do that. That's about it."

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