Chris Paul looked like a man playing for his first trip to an NBA Finals in a 16-year career, and that performance now has his Phoenix Suns one series away from their first-ever championship.
The Suns defeated the shorthanded Los Angeles Clippers 130-103 to win the Western Conference finals and advance to the Finals, their first trip since 1993. They also become the first team to reach the NBA Finals after missing the playoffs 10 years in a row.
It took a vintage night from Paul, for better or worse, to get them there. Paul finished with 41 points on 16-of-24 shooting (7-of-8 from deep), eight assists, four rebounds and three steals.
A close first half went the Suns' way at the end, with Phoenix holding a nine-point lead at halftime. That lead extended to as much as 17 points in the third quarter, but the Clippers looked on their way to another wild rally when they cut the lead to seven.
A personal 8-0 run from Paul led the Suns' response, interrupted by one of his best acting jobs in recent memory, and the lead ballooned to as much as 28 points in the fourth quarter.
After getting burned by Paul George for 41 points in Game 5, the Suns went all out to prevent a repeat performance. Led by Torrey Craig's on-ball defense, the Suns held George to 21 points on 6-of-15 shooting.
Beyond a 26-point, nine-rebound performance by Marcus Morris Sr., George didn't have much help from a Clippers team still missing its top player in Kawhi Leonard and top two big men in Serge Ibaka and Ivica Zubac.
With Ibaka and Zubac out, DeMarcus Cousins was the Clippers' only center available to counter Deandre Ayton, who was again impressive in the paint. The former No. 1 overall pick had 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting and 19 rebounds, embracing a role in which he does most of his work away from the ball.
Patrick Beverley ejected for Chris Paul shove
A series featuring Patrick Beverley and Chris Paul was bound to get chippy, and things boiled over as the game got out of hand.
As the game went to a timeout, Beverley shoved Paul in the back out of nowhere, earning him an early exit from the Clippers' playoff exit:
Bucks or Hawks await in NBA Finals
Awaiting the Suns in the NBA Finals will either be the Milwaukee Bucks or Atlanta Hawks. Which team makes it likely depends on who can get healthy first.
The Eastern Conference finals is currently tied at 2-2 after a Hawks blow-out in Game 4. Giannis Antetokounmpo exited that game with a knee injury after awkwardly landing in the paint and is doubtful for Game 5, but an MRI has fortunately shown no structural damage.
Trae Young was ruled out for Game 4 due to a bone bruise in his right foot, and is currently questionable for Game 5.
Whoever makes it to the Finals, the Suns will hold homecourt advantage.
Clippers' wild ride comes to an end
The Clippers were undoubtedly hoping to advance further than this, but that doesn't take away from a franchise-best playoff run that didn't really get an honest shot thanks to Leonard's ACL injury.
2021 will still go down as the Clippers' first trip to the Western Conference finals, and it was a memorable trip along the way. They became the first team to ever win two series despite falling behind 2-0 in each, dispatching the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz in the first two rounds.
The Clippers' first season with Leonard and George was defined by the team playing far below its perceived capacity, falling apart in the bubble in humiliating fashion. This season reversed that trend, with role players showing out and George finding redemption, even if he didn't have the best performance in Game 6.
Leonard's health (as well as Ibaka) now stands as the biggest what-if in Clippers history. The Clippers had two legitimate stars, an elite coach in Tyronn Lue and strong depth built around 3-point shooting and versatile depth. That sounds like a championship formula, but we'll never really know.
There's at least clearly something to build on for the Clippers now, though, assuming the team doesn't fall apart in the offseason. Leonard could hit free agency if he declines his player option, while key players like Nicolas Batum, Reggie Jackson and potentially Ibaka, who also has a player option, will hit the open market.
The Suns have been good … and undeniably lucky
Let’s make something clear here: The Suns have been playing like a deserving NBA Finals team.
Paul has performed well enough to re-establish his value as a franchise cornerstone at the age of 36. Devin Booker looks more and more like a superstar. Ayton has managed to remove some theoretical regrets over taking him instead of Luka Doncic or Trae Young in the 2018 NBA draft. The supporting cast has taken a big step forward under Monty Williams.
And yet, you really can’t look at the Suns’ path to the Finals without noticing who wasn’t there.
They played the Los Angeles Lakers while Anthony Davis dealt with a groin strain that eventually knocked him out of the series. They played the Denver Nuggets while the team was missing its second-most important player in Jamal Murray. And, of course, the team never saw two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in this series.
Injuries have been a recurring story in the NBA playoffs thanks to last year's shortened offseason, and the Suns stand as the primary beneficiary of that. It could continue in the NBA Finals as well, with Antetokounmpo and Young both currently dealing with injuries.
That might be a frustrating note for a team that probably felt it was getting a raw deal by playing the defending champions in the first round, but it’s just how this has all played out.
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