The Phoenix Suns knew exactly who stood before them and their chance to establish a 3-1 series lead last night. Their opponent, the Los Angeles Clippers, previously came back from two seperate 0-2 holes earlier this postseason, doing so against the Dallas Mavericks, and then the Utah Jazz. Stopping them from accomplishing this yet again and tying things up would be no easy task.
Game 4 went down as an absolute bruiser, but the Suns mucked their way through it to win by an 84-80 tally. It came as the lowest-scoring NBA game all season, with Phoenix only hitting four 3-pointers, their fewest in a victory all season.
Contributing to the contest’s gritty nature, the Suns played perhaps their best defensive game all year. The Clippers shot just 32.5 percent from the floor last night, the lowest mark all season for a team that ranked third in offensive efficiency rating. LA also shot just 16.1 percent from 3-point land, their second-worst performance from outside all year.
With so many shots failing to find the bottom of the net, rebounding became a crucial factor for both teams as the game progressed. Calling on their stud big man once again, Deandre Ayton stepped up in that department, playing as perhaps the entire game’s most valuable asset.
Ayton finished with a career-high 22 rebounds, with nine coming on the offensive end, tied for the second-most in a Conference Finals game since Dennis Rodman’s 12 in 1995. His efforts eventually allowed the Suns to earn three more field goal attempts than the Clippers, clearly coming as a monumental factor during such a close, low-scoring affair.
Taking some shots for himself, Ayton added 19 points, while going 8-14 from the field. Ayton finished as the only Sun shooting above 50.0 percent from the field, and one of only two to do so between both teams, with LA’s Ivica Zubac going 5-8. Ayton managed to reject four shots during the contest as well.
By side though, Mikal Bridges played big as a secondary glass eater, picking up the scraps left over by Ayton. He finished with 13 rebounds, coming as a career-high for him.
Still, this came more as just another shining playoff moment for Ayton, joining his buzzer beating “valley-oop” from just a few days ago. Chris Paul paid tribute to him shortly after the game, even noting how when addressing at Ayton’s growth, it gives him goosebumps.
Now the Suns sit just a single game away from their first trip to the NBA Finals since 1993, when Charles Barkley and company took Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls to six games. Vegas likes Phoenix’s odds to not only get there, but also win their first NBA championship, giving them the best odds to do so at +100. The Suns certainly must also feel confident themselves, heading back home with a chance to close things out, and of course with Ayton playing so well.
If the Suns indeed silence the Clippers Monday night and move onto the league’s biggest stage, Ayton will step up as game’s most dominant center on the glass to reach the Finals in several years. The last big to average more rebounds per game than Ayton during the playoffs and make to the Finals came by way of Tristan Thompson, who did it for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2015.
Amidst a year where the center position underwent a revitalization, thanks mainly to Nikola Jokic who became the first big man to win MVP since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000, it makes all too much sense for Ayton to continue to the trend as we now move deeper into the postseason.