DAN BICKLEY

Ugly Game 4 win has Phoenix Suns on doorstep of NBA Finals

Jun 26, 2021, 10:25 PM | Updated: Jun 27, 2021, 8:26 pm
Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns walks to the free throw line against the LA Clippers during the...
Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns walks to the free throw line against the LA Clippers during the second half in game four of the Western Conference Finals at Staples Center on June 26, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — The Suns survived a game from the Dark Ages, from a bygone era when defenses ruled the earth. Rarely have style points mattered less.

They fought their emotions. They haggled with referees. They scored 84 points in a playoff game and somehow awaken on the doorstep of the NBA Finals.

Their victory in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals was a masterpiece of winning ugly. No apologies necessary.

“That was a slugfest,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “That’s what playoff basketball is all about.”

What a bizarre triumph. What a strange game. Devin Booker ditched his mask after missing a layup. Chris Paul lost a shoe. Abdel Nader took Torrey Craig’s minutes, playing for the first time since mid-March. The two teams combined to miss 111 shots. They played four full minutes in the fourth quarter where neither team made a field goal.

And in the most Clipper thing ever, Boogie Cousins intentionally missed a free throw in the closing seconds by flailing the ball high off the backboard, a violation of NBA rules.

“It was a crazy, emotional game,” Paul said.

“I thought it was a great response to the talk we had (Friday) about competing,” Williams added. “We competed at the highest level I’ve seen from us all season long, especially on the defensive end.”

Reaching the finish line on Saturday was a slog and a chess match. Williams opted to keep fouling the Clippers to prevent three-point field goals. He trusted Paul to get the ball and make his free throws. It worked. Meanwhile, the Clippers were the team that whiffed under pressure, missing free throws and a great opportunity to foul Dario Saric in a high-leverage situation.

In a game when the Suns were perilously close to losing their collective minds, their poise prevailed in the end.

“We know what’s on the table,” Booker said. “We know it’s there. We can’t hide it. But we kept the same mindset the whole playoffs — and the whole regular season honestly — is building this thing brick-by-brick, game-by-game.”

When the horn mercifully sounded, Paul and Deandre Ayton remained on the court for television interviews. That’s when a large contingent of Suns fans who road-tripped their way into Game 4 began their own celebration, chanting, “MVP!”

Paul responded by pointing to Ayton, the man-child who stood tallest in this brutal, back-alley performance.

“I thought it was an unreal performance from him, and our guys rallied around him,” Williams said.

Ayton woke up in a savage mood. He arrived at Staples Center in a T-shirt that trolled and/or paid tribute to Booker’s broken nose. And then he played the biggest game of his life.

There have been times in his career when Ayton has made big numbers feel small. In Game 4, his stellar statistical line of 19 points and 22 rebounds didn’t do him justice. Ayton was a dominant force in the paint and relentless around the rim, keeping errant shots alive on a host of crucial possessions.

“To see his growth, man, I get goosebumps,” Paul said. “We’ve done had some heated conversations this season, especially early in the season. But I genuinely love him and the person he is. … I couldn’t be happier for him.”

Ayton returned the compliment.

“He’s the best thing to happen to my career,” Ayton said.

Exhale, Suns fans. There was tremendous pressure on this team to prevail in Game 4, especially since the Clippers are still missing Kawhi Leonard. The Suns have two stars compared to the Clippers’ one. They have the better roster and deeper team. They needed to win this game.

Booker wasn’t great, but he imposed his will. He said he’s not sure about wearing the mask in Game 5.

“You don’t realize how much you get hit in the face until you take it off,” he added.

Meanwhile, Paul was much better in Game 4, keeping his cool and making key free throws down the stretch. You could almost feel his relief, leading the Suns to a gritty victory after missing the first two games of the series.

“I’m excited to go back to Phoenix,” Paul said. “I haven’t been to Phoenix in a while.”

He’s returning at a good time, to a city ready to burst with joy.

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