The Phoenix Suns have escaped Los Angeles with a hard-fought Game 4 victory. After leading by as many as 16 points, the Clippers rallied to get the deficit down to only one point. But they could never tie the game or take the lead, and after several controversial calls in the final minutes, they walked away with an 84-80 victory that gives them a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.
Devin Booker led the way for the Suns with 25 points despite fouling out late in the fourth quarter. Chris Paul struggled from the field all night, but he hit the free throws Phoenix needed to secure the victory. Deandre Ayton was dominant in his own right finishing with 19 points, 22 rebounds and four blocked shots. Paul George led the Clippers with 23 points, but he shot only 5-of-20 from the field. It was that kind of night for the Clippers, who made only 32.5 percent of their field goals and 16.1 percent of their 3-pointers.
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The Suns will have a chance to clinch their first trip to the NBA Finals on Monday, when the two teams play Game 5 in Phoenix. For now, here are three primary takeaways from Game 4
1. Ayton is about to get paid
You could credibly argue that Deandre Ayton just played the best basketball game of his life in the biggest basketball game of his life. His 22 rebounds are a new career-high. He shot 8-of-14 from the field, but remember, the other five Phoenix starters combined to shoot 18-of-58. He had four blocks, and that doesn't even do justice to what a remarkable defensive night Ayton had. Few centers in basketball can defend the pick-and-roll as well as he did tonight, and that's going to prove very useful for him when this playoff run eventually ends.
Ayton, as a third-year player entering the final year of his traditional rookie deal, will be eligible for a contract extension this offseason. There were real arguments against giving him a max deal before the postseason. Devin Booker is already signed for the max. Chris Paul is likely going to get a multi-year extension. Mikal Bridges fits an archetype that tends to be more valuable in the modern game as a two-way wing. Throw in multi-year deals for players like Jae Crowder and Dario Saric along with Cameron Payne's impending free agency, and maxing out Ayton would make the Suns one of the NBA's most expensive rosters when that new deal kicks in for the 2022-23 season.
After the postseason run he's had though… who cares? Plenty of teams have regretted expensive deals for a center, but there's no reason to believe that Ayton will be one of them after watching this postseason run. None of the teams he has played thus far have been able to play him off of the floor with smaller lineups. He's defended the perimeter wonderfully while punishing those smaller lineups with his athleticism and touch at the basket. He's an elite playoff rebounder that can play 40 minutes without wearing down. Big men like that are too rare to pinch pennies over. Just pay the man what he has earned.
2. The war of attrition
Games like this aren't exactly uncommon late in the playoffs. Defensive intensity rises dramatically in the later stages of the postseason, and the more games a team plays against an opponent, the more easily it can recognize what that opponent is doing moving forward. An 84-80 final score is definitely unusual in 2021, but rock fights aren't rare this late in the playoffs. Brooklyn and Milwaukee had several of them.
These kinds of games tend to come down to two things, and they are two things the Clippers don't have right now. The first is superstar shot-making. The Clippers made only three field goals in the fourth quarter. Typically, Kawhi Leonard would be attempting many of the shots his teammates missed. Without him, the burden fell to Paul George, who shot 5-of-20 from the field in Game 4, but that may have come down to the second major factor in these games: fresh legs.
The Suns have played nine games in the past 25 days. The Clippers have played 13. Phoenix deserves credit for that. The Suns got a week of rest before this series because they swept the Nuggets. But the NBA didn't help matters with the way it scheduled this series. Game 1 tipped around 40 hours after the Clippers finished off the Utah Jazz in the second round, and the series has been played every other day since despite the West starting three days before the East. Maybe an extra day of rest somewhere in the schedule would have given the Clippers enough gas to finish this thing off.
But they frequently missed shots short, and they shot below 70 percent from the foul line as a team for only the sixth time this season. This condensed schedule has turned the postseason into a war of attrition, and that's a war the Clippers just can't win right now.
3. Where is Nic Batum?
Unforced rotation errors are especially meaningful to a team as thin as the Clippers are right now, so that begs the question: why is Nic Batum hardly playing anymore?
The Clippers had won his minutes by 107 points this postseason entering Game 4. Between Game 4 of the Dallas series (when he started his first game of the playoffs) and Game 1 of the Phoenix series, he averaged 34.5 minutes per game. He averaged almost 40 minutes per game in the first three games Leonard missed, and the Clippers won the minutes he was on the floor in each of those games. Yet in Game 2 against the Suns, he played less than 16 minutes. He fell below 15 in Game 3 and rose back up to 16 in Game 4.
So what's going on here? Batum isn't listed on the injury report. Marcus Morris is playing through a known injury and still got more time than Batum, who has been one of the best players on the team this postseason. The Clippers have played bigger this series than they did in their first two, so perhaps Ty Lue just sees less value for Batum as a wing than as a big man, but it's been one of the stranger elements of a series that has been close enough for a single rotation decision like that to legitimately impact the outcome.