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Toughness and vigor from young Suns has them one win away from NBA Finals

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Remember when this team was too inexperienced to be here?

NBA: Playoffs-Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Clippers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The knock against Phoenix Suns was that they were too young. Despite having a Hall-of-Fame point guard, an elite scorer and very capable coaching and supporting cast members, all was futile compared to their playoff inexperience.

The Suns burned that narrative quickly. Trailing two games to one against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, Phoenix won three straight to clinch the series. It parlayed that into a franchise-best nine-game playoff winning streak, something that the run-and-gun Suns and the 1993 Western Conference championship team never quite approached.

Without starting point guard Chris Paul — its postseason veteran amid a group of beginners — Phoenix still won the two games of the Western Conference Finals, putting it in position to compete for a championship. Even after a Game 3 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, its confidence never wavered.

And why should it now? With the Suns’ 84-80 victory over the Clippers in Game 4 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, they proved they can win at the highest level in an ugly fashion. The contest wasn’t pleasing to the eyes — both teams shot under 40 percent from the field — but Phoenix made it pretty, moving within one win of its third NBA Finals berth in history with a 3-1 series lead.

It was an effort that Suns coach Monty Williams — despite a fourth-quarter stretch in which neither team made a field goal for 3:44 — certainly appreciated.

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

Leading 50-36 at halftime, it appeared the Suns were on their way to a runaway victory. Phoenix shot just 21-of-45 (46.7 percent) from the field but held the Clippers to 13-of-44 (29.5 percent) from the field, including 11 straight misses from 3-point range.

The Suns also forced seven Los Angeles turnovers and won the battle in points in the paint, 28-16. But the tone of the game changed quickly in the second half.

Phoenix lost its double-digit lead and then the third quarter 30-19, in which it shot 6-of-22 (27.2 percent) from the field and missed all six of its 3-point attempts. Los Angeles — after being unable to buy a bucket in the first half — cashed in with 11 makes on 20 shots in the period while forcing four of the Suns’ 14 turnovers.

Leading 69-66 entering the fourth quarter, it appeared Phoenix needed a scoring surge to put the Clippers away. It turned out to be the opposite. After two free throws from Los Angeles starting forward Paul George cut the Suns’ lead to 71-70 with 10:07 left in the first half, both teams combined to shoot 0-of-15 over the next 3:44.

It was a stretch that made Williams want to pull whatever hair he had left on his head out of him.

“Every time Chris and I made eye contact, he was like, both of us were like, ‘We’re good, we’re good,’” Williams said. “That kind of thing. Him more than me in those situations.”

After a timeout, the Suns went to a high screen-and-roll that led to a dunk for starting center Deandre Ayton, providing them a 3-point lead with 6:23 to play. Los Angeles then got two free throws and a jumper from starting guard Reggie Jackson on either side of a pull-up shot from Suns starting guard Devin Booker, cutting Phoenix’s lead to 75-74 with 4:57 to go.

Following three combined misses for both teams, Paul got switched on to Clippers starting center Ivica Zubac and scored at the rim. The Suns then got a stop and two free throws from Booker, giving them a five-point advantage they held until the final minute.

Los Angeles got a layup from forward Terance Mann to cut its lead to 79-76 with 58.5 seconds to go, a score that remained until there were 13.2 seconds left, when the contest became a free-throw shooting affair. George and Paul traded two shots each to give the Suns an 81-78 lead with seven seconds left before George missed two free throws of his own. The Clippers got another chance after a loose-ball foul but backup center Demarcus Cousins unsuccessfully tried to create a second-chance opportunity on his second attempt.

Paul and George then each went 1-of-2 from the line, and the Suns then got a rebound that led to two free throws from Paul to ice the game. The final 65 seconds of the game took 21 minutes of real time, according to Statmuse, but Paul said it was worth every moment.

“Just poise and the togetherness,” he said. “That ball can bounce either way, and I think a lot of times, teams are reflective of their coach. And Mont has been so detail-oriented all season long. In practice, we watch, talking about boxouts, talking about end-of-game situations. We’ll take it tonight.”

In his second game back from health and safety protocols, Paul still appeared somewhat out of rhythm but finished with 18 points, seven assists and four rebounds on 6-of-22 shooting. Booker finished with his most points of the series (25) since Game 1 on an 8-of-22 clip, at one point removing the facemask that covered his broken nose before he fouled out with 1:05 left.

“I said after the game, if I get hit again — which you don’t realize how much you get hit until the face until you take it off — I can get surgery after the season,” Booker said. “I’m not blaming anything on the mask, but I haven’t played basketball with a mask ever in my life. It takes some getting used to and at that point and that time, I didn’t want it.”

The Suns were led on both ends from Ayton, who finished with 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting and a career-high 22 rebounds, nine of which came on the offensive end. For the third straight game, Ayton scored in double figures in the first quarter, totaling 11 points and six rebounds on 4-of-5 shooting.

He finished with a near double-double at 15 points and nine rebounds at halftime and also had two of his four blocks. He ended the night with the best defensive win share rating (0.781) of either team and was key to the Suns’ efforts on both ends, as has been the case all postseason long.

“That man over there, Deandre Ayton, he’s going to him a bag this summer,” Paul told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols postgame. “He’s going to get him a bag, and he’s showing everybody right now during the playoffs why.”

Ayton, who has received heavy criticism since he was selected No. 1 overall in the 2018 NBA Draft, said those remarks have especially motivated his playoff run, in which he is averaging 16.6 points and 11.4 rebounds on 70.9 percent shooting.

“It got to me a little bit,” Ayton said. “And I wanted to change that. That’s about it, just a question mark on me, you know? I just wanted to change that and prove everyone wrong.”

Dashed into irrelevance over the last 10 years, the Suns are now one win away from the NBA Finals. They have an opportunity to make that a reality in Game 5 on Monday in Phoenix, where Paul said he is especially excited to play after missing Games 1 and 2.

“We going home to the best fans in the league, Phoenix,” Paul said. “You see the way they show up on the road. They’re going to be crazy on Monday.”

Paul himself has accomplished a lot in his NBA career, but never a finals berth. He has been continuously credited for his ability to grow and mature this young Suns team. Now, they have a great chance to do something unprecedented for each other.

“Three wins don’t win a series,” Paul said. “So right now, we do what we can do, we wanted to get one of these. And now, we got to stay focused and be ready to go back to our crowd.”