In a season defined by record scoring and turbocharged offenses, trench warfare broke out in Staples Center in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals between the Phoenix Suns and LA Clippers. Two proficient 3-point shooting teams combined to shoot 9-for-51 from beyond the arc (17.6%) and 34.3% from the field. With the game tightening after the traditional third quarter rally by the Clippers, the teams shot a collective 2-for-21 from the field to begin the fourth quarter. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Clippers attempted 10 go-ahead field goals in the fourth quarter — and missed all 10.
In the end, the Suns outscored the Clippers 15-14 in the final frame, enough to eke out an 84-80 win and a 3-1 series lead as the conference finals return to Phoenix for Monday night’s Game 5 (Monday, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App). In what’s one of the most profound franchise turnarounds in recent NBA history, a team that hadn’t qualified for the playoffs in more than a decade is now only one game away from the NBA Finals.
“You put the work in — that comes in the summertime, that comes through the regular season, the communication, stressing all the details to win,” Suns guard Devin Booker said. “I believe in us. believe in this team, our coaching staff, training staff, everybody around this organization. We put the work in. We’ve put the time in. Now it’s time to let it show.”
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The Suns have emerged as one of the most appealing squads on the NBA scene this season — a “fun team” that plays an entertaining brand of basketball: a potent pick-and-roll attack, charismatic guards like Booker and Chris Paul, a bouncy big man coming into his own in Deandre Ayton, a platoon of young perimeter snipers who move well off the ball like Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson, an emotional stopper in Jae Crowder.
Very little of that charm was on display on Saturday night. Phoenix’s 84 points were the fewest of any winning team this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. After the first quarter, the Suns struggled to generate quality looks in the half court and convert the open ones they found. For the third consecutive game in the series, Booker struggled from the field and ultimately fouled out late in the fourth quarter. The Suns shot 24.4% in the second half — the second-worst FG pct in the second half of a playoff win over the past 25 postseasons — and somehow managed to win a professional basketball game.
Despite the ugly play — or perhaps because of it — the win was particularly impressive. Any NBA team playing this deep into the postseason has the pyrotechnics needed to put on an offensive exhibition. The true contenders? They summon the resourcefulness to win when they’re playing awful basketball. The Game 4 win in Los Angeles revealed a team with a mastery of the margins, a quality Booker said flows down from Suns head coach Monty Williams.
“Monty’s so detail-oriented,” Booker said. “You have to be like that, understanding little plays and understanding what people like to do, make or break a game.
Case in point: The Clippers feature one of the switchiest defensive schemes in the NBA, one that has served them well both in the regular season and playoffs. Their mobility has enabled them to stay in front of Phoenix’s perimeter attackers for much of the series. But no NBA defense is fool-proof, and each presents a vulnerability that can be exploited. Even as the Clippers made life difficult on Paul and Booker as they drove, the guards found just enough daylight to draw a contest from Clippers center Ivica Zubac. That’s when Ayton slipped deep into the paint and readied himself to crash the offensive glass and collect many of the Suns’ numerous misses.
“If you’re going to miss that much, you hope to get some of them back,” Williams said. “[Ayton’s] ability to keep balls in play without going over the back — he’s one of the best I’ve ever seen getting up in the air and reaching over for tip-ins to himself.”
ABC and ESPN are your home for the 2021 Western Conference finals, as the Phoenix Suns face the LA Clippers for a trip to the NBA Finals.
Game 4:June 26, 9 p.m. ET on ESPNGame 5:June 28, 9 p.m. ET on ESPNGame 6*:June 30, 9 p.m. ET on ESPNGame 7*:July 2, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN
*If necessary
On a night when virtually nobody posted a pretty line in the box score, Ayton was a paragon of efficiency. He scored 19 points, collected 22 rebounds (nine of them on the offensive end) and blocked four shots. Appropriately, he and Paul connected to end the Suns’ fourth-quarter drought with an alley-oop off a pick-and-roll. That action with that pairing was one of the Suns’ only productive pieces of offense.
Ayton continues to enjoy a breakout season, one that saw him gain fluency in back-line defense, as well as the pick-and-roll — both essential tasks any aspiring All-Star big man must master. After the game, Ayton credited Paul for much of that growth, noting that the 16-year vet was “the only guy that’s ever pushed me, like big-bro-pushed me.” A master of detail like his coach, Paul schooled Ayton in the dark arts of the pick-and-roll. Mechanics and nuance don’t make for good highlight footage, but they’re precisely those kinds of elements that empower a team on a poor shooting night to prevail.
“It started at training camp,” Ayton said of his graduate-level education under Paul. “The first thing he told me that was going to keep me in the league for a long time was angles. And I was like, ‘Angles?'”
Angles, indeed. Because for every playoff win that’s the result of a dynamic scorer dropping 45 on a night he’s unguardable, there are two there for the taking for the team that wins the margins. In one season, Ayton has demonstrated the reliability and smarts befitting of a No. 1 overall pick. In that spirit, Paul commented that for such a young roster, the Suns were uncommonly mature.
“We’ve got a young team, but with some old souls,” Paul said.
Not that there isn’t a healthy supply of youthful whimsy. Following the game, Ayton showed up at his press conference wearing a black t-shirt featuring a massive floating head of Booker with his nose broken. He explained that the shirt, designed by a friend, told the world that the Suns can take a punch in the face.
Booker, whom Paul referred to as the oldest 24-year-old in the world, was a bit more sober. Asked about whether he allowed himself to think about the Suns’ proximity to the NBA Finals, Booker was measured, if candid.
“We know what’s on the table,” Booker said. “We know what’s there.”

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