LOS ANGELES — After a run of 16 consecutive misses between the two teams, perhaps even Clipper fans felt relief when Deandre Ayton finally leaped for a lob from Chris Paul after 3? minutes without a point.
Of course, the dunker on the famed “Valley-Oop” finish in Game 2 has otherwise been a frustrating wall for the Clippers to figure out in this series – and in Saturday’s Game 4, he emerged as the most difficult two-way matchup as the Phoenix Suns’ star backcourt struggled to get going.
The 22-year-old center finished with 19 points and a career playoff-high 22 rebounds, each one a necessity in a low-scoring mud fight that saw the Suns prevail in an 84-80 win to take a 3-1 series lead and move one win away from an unexpected NBA Finals berth.
Paul, 36, couldn’t help but gush about how far Ayton has come in their season together.
“To see his growth, man, I get goosebumps seriously, man,” he said. “We done had some heated conversations this season, especially earlier in the season but, man, I genuinely love him. The person that he is and to see everything that’s coming to him, national audience getting to see who he is and why he’s the No. 1 pick, I couldn’t be happier for him.”
While Paul provided the finishing strikes at the free-throw line, Ayton gave the Clippers 41 minutes of body blows: scraping for rebounds and loose balls, blocking four shots and deterring others, bringing physicality on defense when physicality was a requirement to compete. One of the most impressive marks was that the Clippers scored just 16 points in the paint during their 36-point first half, which helped define the tone of the evening.
Without Ayton’s gritty contributions, Suns coach Monty Williams said, the series would have been evened up: “He basically won that game for us tonight. He was tremendous.”
This postseason run has been a glowing referendum on the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, who was under fire the moment the Suns selected him out of Arizona. With a number of impressive young players drafted just behind him, led by Dallas’ Luka Doncic and Atlanta’s Trae Young, many wondered if Ayton would ever live up to the 6-foot-11 stature that so intrigued the Phoenix front office.
Ayton has risen to the stage, in this series more than any before it. Against the Clippers, he has averaged 20.3 points and 13.5 rebounds, both highs in any of his three series. The Clippers have tried a few options to stop him, including 7-foot Ivica Zubac, but Ayton was a team-best plus-8 in the game.
One of the biggest motivations he’s felt in the playoffs was that plenty questioned if he was ready for the postseason stage.
“That got to me a little bit,” Ayton said. “And I’m going to change that. That’s about it. Just a question mark on me. You know. And I just wanted to change that and prove everyone wrong.”
It bears mentioning that it was not a great night for the Suns’ other two stars.
While Paul lost a shoe scrambling for a final loose ball and booked the win at the free-throw line, he was just 6 for 22 from the field – still hunting for his touch after spending nearly a week in the COVID-19 protocols before Game 3. Fellow All-Star Devin Booker was just 8 for 22 for 25 points, tossing his mask (protecting his broken nose) midway through the third quarter as he looked for some kind of adjustment to get his shooting stroke flowing.
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Booker never really found a rhythm despite leading the team in scoring, and he eventually fouled out with a minute-and-a-half left, his team just five points ahead on the road.
The duo’s 14-for-44 shooting night was a slight improvement on their 10-for-40 effort in Game 3, but it kept the Suns from pulling away further on a night when the Clippers never found their shooting stroke. In lieu of leaning on firepower, Williams said, he saw his group buckle down on defense. And no one was more crucial on that end than Ayton.
“He was the catalyst tonight on the defensive end,” Williams said. “I thought it was an unreal performance from him, and our guys rallied around him.”
So too did the small crowd of Suns faithful who remained in their seats after the final buzzer sounded. “SUNS IN FIVE,” the fans chanted as Ayton went to embrace Paul after their post-game interviews.
The big center chanted along with them as he headed to the tunnel – the first steps on the road back to Phoenix.
DEANDRE. AYTON. DOMINATION.@DeandreAyton scores 19 points while tallying #NBAPlayoffs career highs in boards (22) and blocks (4), putting the @Suns up 3-1! #ThatsGame
Game 5 – Monday, 9pm/et, ESPN pic.twitter.com/tovZKKCbpi
— NBA (@NBA) June 27, 2021
”He was the best thing that happened to my career.”@DeandreAyton on @CP3’s impact on him. #ThatsGame #NBAWCF presented by AT&T pic.twitter.com/A8zgIfCpWE
— NBA (@NBA) June 27, 2021
”To see his growth.. I get goosebumps.” @CP3 on @DeandreAyton after the @Suns young big man put up 19p/22r/4b in Game 4. #ThatsGame #NBAWCF presented by AT&T pic.twitter.com/bSgCmPfO6A
— NBA (@NBA) June 27, 2021
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