EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Chris Paul’s latest 4th-quarter takeover fuels Suns past Clippers

Apr 22, 2023, 5:44 PM | Updated: 7:36 pm

Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns reacts to his off balance three pointer during a 112-100 Suns win...

Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns reacts to his off balance three pointer during a 112-100 Suns win over the LA Clippers during Game Four of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs at Crypto.com Arena on April 22, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — It should not have been a surprise who it was.

After two games in which Devin Booker successfully shouldered just about all the responsibility to keep the Phoenix Suns’ offense chugging, Phoenix had to have one of its other players in its core four step up in Game 4 against the Los Angeles Clippers to take a 3-1 series lead on Saturday.

All three wound up making more meaningful contributions in the 112-100 Suns win but it was really about Chris Paul looking like Chris Paul again, especially after one of his signature fourth-quarter takeovers.

Through three quarters, this was Chris Paul’s best game of the series by far. Not because of his overall impact, but because of how many plays he made where he looked like himself. He got the levitation and touch on his jumper back, was extremely active with his hands defensively and made a handful of passes that only he could. This version of Paul that includes him not hesitating on 3s is all Phoenix requires from him to win a championship.

It was even more impressive after a 5-for-18 shooting night in Game 3, and so was the way Paul joined the flow Booker and Kevin Durant established.

“The mental fortitude it takes to come back from the game he had the other day,” head coach Monty Williams said. “And all three of those guys are trying to figure out, ‘You go, I go’ that kind of thing and I thought all three were in go mode today.”

And then the fourth quarter happened, when all of that came together for Paul in a starring role.

With a two-point Suns lead and eight minutes to go, Paul drilled a middy, assisted a Torrey Craig layup, hit a 3 and then followed a Durant pull-up by connecting on a lob to Deandre Ayton.

Phoenix had scored on those five consecutive possessions, and after a Paul miss, Craig made the biggest play of the game by snagging that and then later getting a layup to put the Suns up eight with 4:24 remaining. The ultra-resilient Clippers, still without Kawhi Leonard (knee) and Paul George (knee), could only take so much and stand their ground so many times.

Paul then converted on a 3 and then sunk a ridiculous hurl at the end of the shot clock for a double-dagger special that actually wasn’t necessary because his offensive rebound was off a shot that did hit the rim.

Booker couldn’t help but spend some time afterward laughing at half-court.

Paul scored 12 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter with four rebounds, nine assists, three steals, three blocks and zero turnovers, shooting 8-of-17. Paul and Booker have now both reached three steals and three blocks in separate games and are the only starting guards in the last four postseasons to do it at all, per Stathead.

Phoenix’s problem with getting a half-decent start in this series persisted. It looked like that might be coming to an end after it began at a 16-9 edge but the Clippers ended the first quarter on a 21-7 run. The offense continued to have little rhythm outside of Booker’s solo efforts, even after a much better opening for Ayton with his four offensive rebounds in the first five minutes.

That trend, however, took a turn when Booker went for a rest with the Suns down 11. A Paul setup for Ayton, Paul middy and Paul steal leading to a Durant 3 was part of an 11-2 run while Booker sat and they ended up +7 over the four total minutes. Los Angeles had a terrible second quarter filled with turnovers and bricks.

It felt like that was when a breakthrough would come since Phoenix finally got over the hump of generating offense without Booker and led by one at the half.

That didn’t happen right away and it took some sloppy decisions to get there, as Phoenix turned it over three straight times to open the third quarter.

“I was pissed,” Paul said of that start out of halftime. “We all was. We was on the bench sort of going at each other, but it’s healthy. Just try to get us going, try to get us going and I tried to get myself going defensively.”

But then Phoenix started 8-of-10 in the second half to retake the lead. Some buckets for Booker and Durant, including this absurd save by Booker, appeared to jolt a group in dire need of one.

Booker had sparked back into his final form from the previous two games.

He and Durant both had moments later in the quarter where the distinct advantage of having far and away the two best players on the court materialized.

Los Angeles got another phenomenal Russell Westbrook game and the former MVP was keeping the Clippers in it until that Paul takeover. No one on Phoenix stood a chance at preventing him from getting to the basket and he was 17-of-29 for 37 points to go with six rebounds, four assists, a steal, a block and four turnovers.

Westbrook had spent the last few years bouncing around teams where it kept not working out, bringing on conversations about how much he had left.

He has undeniably proved in this series he has a whole lot left. Westbrook has been one of the most scrutinized players of his generation because of his volatile play style.

Well, among many other reasons critics seem to always find with him.

“Russ has been resilient his whole life,” Durant said of his ex-teammate. “He come to work, don’t say much, just come hoop. When he’s retired, people are going to really tell the truth about how they feel about his game. Right now it’s a fun thing to do, is make a joke out of Russ, but the way he been playing since he got with the Clippers showed everybody who he really is.”

“I feel like the only people that do that too is the people who don’t know basketball and don’t know what it’s like to compete,” Paul added while sitting next to Durant.

Booker provided 30 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, three steals and four turnovers while Durant added 31 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and three turnovers.

Durant reached double-digit free-throw makes for the third time in the series with a 10-for-11 number. Williams said on Friday that Durant was frustrated by the amount of contact Los Angeles was piling on him before he even touched the ball. Durant denied that notion a bit and expanded on it.

“I wouldn’t say I was frustrated from the fouling but they doing a good job of sending two at me in my spots,” Durant said. “I see a small guy in the post, I want to go to work right there, and then I see somebody else coming to help. So that may be a little frustrating. But physicality, every time I step on the court, whether it’s a pickup game or NBA game, somebody gonna be physical with me because of my stature.

“I’ve been playing through that since I was eight years old, so it ain’t nothing different. Just trying to figure out what’s the best way for us to be efficient. Sometimes I get a little frustrated when we don’t play efficient basketball.”

His coach saw some progress in getting Durant the rock in a more natural way, a necessary improvement.

“I thought Kev just stayed with it tonight,” Williams said. “He fought for the ball a bit more than last game I thought. And I think our guys did a much better job of finding him when he was open so he could attack but I do still feel like it’s a work in progress.

“We just gotta figure out how teams are guarding him and then when he does pop free we gotta be able to get him the ball in the shot pocket or throw it to him where he can activate and take off.”

Here are the minute totals through four games for those three guys.

Booker: 43, 45, 45, 41

Durant: 45, 44, 42, 45

Paul: 39, 38, 41, 38

That is alarming, particularly for the older Durant and Paul.

But something Paul wanted to point out is it’s not as simple as what the numbers say.

“You gotta actually watch the game,” he said. “There may be a four-minute, five-minute stretch where we just out there sort of occupying while Book going to work. It’s not just everybody, ‘Oh, how many minutes did they play?’ It’s how [were] the minutes (used) and I think that’s where we communicate and we talk and we be like, ‘Yo, how you feel? How you feel?’ We pros, so we just try to figure it out.”

Williams noted that is something Phoenix’s analytics and sports science data supports as well while also saying they are aware of the issue. Games 4 and 5 have two days between them, a first for the series and a break Phoenix will take advantage of.

“When you’re playing every other day in the playoffs, there goes load management,” Williams said. “But I think it is something we are concerned about as it piles up but hopefully we can take advantage of these days.”

Durant responded the way you’d expect when asked if he can handle it.

“How’d I look tonight?” he said, with a, “Talk to ’em” from Paul sitting next to him.

Ayton had his best game of the series, producing 15 points, 13 rebounds, an assist, two steals and two blocks with five turnovers. The mental connectivity to the game was still too ajar but he brought better energy and that made a difference.

Josh Okogie played 25 minutes off the bench to give Phoenix a better shot defending Westbrook and also because he was just pretty darn good. He amounted to six points, three rebounds, an assist, a steal and a block.

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