LOS ANGELES — When Chris Paul first stepped to the free throw line with seven seconds to play in Saturday’s Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, he thought about the conversations he has with his son, Chris II, about the importance of connecting on those shots in crunch time.
The elder Chris clearly set the right example, going 5-of-6 from the foul line in the waning moments to help the Suns grind out an 84-80 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center to take a 3-1 series lead and put them on the cusp of their first NBA Finals trip since 1993.
“He’s training and texting me earlier today telling me about his game this morning,” Paul said of his son. “I seriously went to the free throw line and was like, ‘How the hell am I gonna tell him to stay poised if I don’t do it my damn self?’ Like, dead serious.
“That’s what was dope was after the game, looking up there in the suite and seeing my son excited.”
The Suns won Saturday by building a 16-point lead, surviving a Clippers’ rally to cut that advantage to 71-70 early in the fourth quarter and then pushing through a stretch when both teams combined to go scoreless for nearly four minutes in final period.
Phoenix rebuilt a five-point advantage when Paul made a driving layup and Devin Booker followed with two free throws with 2:16 to play, before a Terrance Mann layup and two foul shots by Paul George got the Clippers within one again at 79-78 with 13.2 seconds remaining.
But then Paul sank those clutch free throws, while coach Monty Williams kept opting to foul up three points rather than risk a game-tying bucket from beyond the arc in the final seconds.
"The execution down the stretch," Williams said, "to be able to foul when we needed to and box out and hit the free throws necessary to win the game, it’s all the stuff you work on all season long. A lot of it paid off tonight, especially when you couldn’t score the ball.
"That was a slugfest. That’s what playoff basketball is all about."
Deandre Ayton was a force all night, finishing with 19 points, a career-high 22 rebounds (including nine on the offensive end) and four blocks. Booker finished with 25 points.
Game 5 is Monday night at Phoenix Suns Arena.
WHAT THEY ARE SAYING:
Monty Williams on the win: “It was a great response to the talk we had yesterday about competing. We competed at the highest level that I’ve seen from us all season long, especially on the defensive end. We just have to have a great deal of balance with our emotions and handle this the right way and not get too far ahead."
Deandre Ayton on his performance: “I’m going to be honest: I got out-played last game. (Ivica) Zubac did a great job of controlling the glass and being a presence down low on both ends of the floor. It was up to me to get in front of that or compete with that or challenge that. I just really tried my best to just be relentless on the glass and really tried to control both ends of the floor, my presence, talking and my second effort.”
Devin Booker on the win: “It was an ugly game from beginning to end, honestly, if you’re talking from a scoring aspect. But we dug in and got stops. It’s the playoffs. Any way you can come out with the win, (we’ll take).”
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Devin Booker: 25 points, 2 rebounds, 2 steals
Deandre Ayton: 19 points, 22 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 blocks, 1 steal
Chris Paul: 18 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds, 1 steal
Mikal Bridges: 6 points, 13 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks
After the lengthy officials’ review, the crowd’s roar upon confirmation that his finish was legal and the endless hugs from teammates and coaches, Ayton emphatically agreed when asked if that was the best play of his life. The “Valley-oop” to beat the Los Angeles Clippers 104-103 to take a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals is already an iconic moment in Phoenix Suns history.
It was also the latest reminder that Ayton’s consistent — and often dominant — play unfolding bit-by-bit during this electrifying postseason run has rapidly vaulted him into the conversation surrounding the NBA’s top-tier centers.
Johnson and Bridges are now known as “The Twins,” a nickname coined by Deandre Ayton because they are always around each other and play a similar position and style. After forming their initial bond heading into the 2019-20 season, Johnson’s and Bridges’ relationship flows from the locker room onto the court and epitomizes the Suns’ necessary trust, togetherness and overall synergy that has led them to the Western Conference Finals.
On June 20, 2019, Jones helped launch the construction of the Suns’ roster now up 2-0 in the Western Conference Finals. And on June 20, 2021, Jones was named NBA Executive of the Year. What a difference two years can make.
It takes talent, relentless drive and togetherness to become one of the NBA’s final four teams remaining in the postseason. But the Suns’ ability to reach this level of consistent, confident and clinical execution, particularly while winning a franchise-record seven consecutive playoff games, can be directly tied to their willingness to embrace the belief that everything counts. That attention to detail becomes even more critical with an NBA Finals berth on the line when Phoenix’s series against the Los Angeles Clippers begins Sunday afternoon, especially with Paul missing at least Game 1 while in health and safety protocols.
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
Craig is a versatile defender and willing rebounder on both ends. He will dive for 50/50 balls and flash his athleticism via deflections and blocks. He has gotten more offensive opportunities with the Suns as an outside shooter and authoritative finisher off cuts and in transition. Now, Craig is showcasing all of those attributes during a playoff series against his former team while providing a jolt to the Suns’ championship aspirations.
‘THERE’S NOTHING LIKE IT’
That electric crowd is goosebumps-inducing in person and takes television viewers aback, prompting local pride and national attention. It has been praised by young Suns experiencing the postseason for the first time and veterans who have been through countless playoff games alike. That’s why it’s reasonable to wonder if — or conclude that — the Suns have quickly created the NBA’s best home-court advantage during these playoffs.
The formal definition of the word “relentless” is “oppressively constant; incessant.” That descriptor has followed the Suns throughout this season, applying to their on-court style of play and their everyday habits while navigating this unique season. Knocking off the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs’ first round required a relentless approach, which now carries the Suns into the Western Conference Semifinals against the Denver Nuggets.
“It’s just how the guys are built, individually and as a collective group,” Booker said. “If you go down the list of all the players, there’s nobody that’s scared of the moment. There’s nobody that hasn’t prepared for this moment. This isn’t new. This is how we’ve been playing for most of the season. We’ve had ups and downs, but we’re a confident team and we play hard all the way through.”
Now in his third season as general manager of the Phoenix Suns, James Jones has taken his knowledge of what it takes to win a ring and is building a roster of like-minded players with high-IQs, unselfish personalities and relentless attitudes both on the court and behind the scenes. The result is Phoenix’s dramatic rise over the past two seasons. The Suns went 51-21 during the 2020-21 regular season, finished second in a loaded Western Conference and enters Tuesday with the opportunity to take a 3-2 lead in their first-round playoff series against the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Cameron Payne plays with a fiery passion that somehow looks both free and furious, prompting some to compare him to the “haboob” dust storms that disrupt the Valley air during the summer monsoon season. It’s a fitting style for Payne, a former lottery draft pick who had his NBA career stripped away in early 2019 and is now savoring his shot on a Suns team with championship aspirations.
“To be on the road and have your fans cheering for you, especially when you make a run, is pretty cool," head coach Monty Williams said. "We’re thankful, grateful and we’re fighting our tails off to make those fans that we have in this environment have something to cheer for.”
Whether traveling from Phoenix or different parts of California, Suns.com gathered personal stories from six Suns fans making the trip and cheer on their favorite team.
LIVING UP TO THE MOMENT
Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson showed consistent effort all season, preparing them for the bright lights. They lived up to the moment in Game 1 and, in some cases, churned out historic stat lines — even during an intense game complete with the magnitude of the franchise’s first playoff game since 2010, a jarring injury to their Hall of Fame point guard and a scuffle that resulted in a teammate being ejected.
There are enough “Montyisms” for Monty Williams to write a compilation book — which Devin Booker has publicly and privately suggested to his coach. Even while repeating them to players, Cam Johnson said, Williams will preface by acknowledging some might call them “corny” or “goofy” or “coach speak.” Yet Johnson says those mantras are “big-time anchors” that have kept the Suns emotionally centered during the franchise’s emphatic rise to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. They create personal connections with players by instilling belief and relaying constructive advice. They provide reminders that resurface in the head and heart when one least expects it, and can apply to both basketball and life.
RALLY THE VALLEY
Suns.com gathered personal stories from 13 people connected to the organization. Some are longtime fans, and others are long-time employees in behind-the-scenes roles. Some are community partners who work with the Suns to make residents’ lives a little brighter. Some are natives, and some have returned home.
“You look around the league at some teams, and not everybody has a vibe like this or an energy like this throughout,” Booker said. “I always say it’s a great environment to get better in. When you have everybody supporting you, everybody being honest with you — those are the same people that can give me constructive criticism at any point in the game, and I’m listening to them — that’s the name of our group, man.”
Culture, chemistry and overall spirit are intangible qualities that cannot be measured by traditional stats or advanced analytics. But players and coaches know it — feel it — when those attributes have manifested within a team.