(AP) — Tears welled in Chris Paul’s eyes. A message in black ink on
his shoes said it all: Can’t give up now.
In his 16th
season, Paul led the Phoenix Suns into their first NBA Finals in 28
years, beating the Los Angeles Clippers 130-103 on Wednesday night
to close out the Western Conference Finals in six games.
Paul scored 41
points and Devin Booker added 22 to send the Suns to their third
Finals appearance in franchise history. They will face either the
Atlanta Hawks or Milwaukee Bucks, who are tied 2-2 in the East
the NBA Finals for the first time on the same Staples Center court
where he helped bring the Clippers to respectability over six
seasons that ended in 2017. The 36-year-old guard punished his old
team with 31 points in the second half and tied his playoff career
high of 41 — the same amount Paul George had in pushing the
Clippers to a road win in Game 5.
“I’m just so
happy for all the people around me,” Paul said on the court after
the game, “and the Clippers are my family, too. These fans, Billy
Crystal, that’s my family. This is a team I have the utmost respect
for, I’ll always be a Clipper.
“But this group
right here, this group right here...” he said, gesturing
at his Suns teammates wearing NBA Finals hats.
The West trophy
glinted under the arena lights as orange-clad Suns fans outcheered
boos from Clippers fans.
“This is what
we set out to get tonight, so we didn’t want to go back to Phoenix
without it,” Booker said.
Phoenix is the
first team to reach the NBA Finals after a 10-year playoff drought.
The Suns last made the NBA Finals in 1993, when they were led by
Charles Barkley and lost to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in
other Finals appearance was in 1976, a loss to the Boston Celtics
in six games.
chippy in the fourth. Going into a timeout with 5:48 remaining,
Paul stared at Patrick Beverley as he walked by. Beverley turned
around and shoved Paul hard in the back, sending him to the floor.
Beverley was ejected.
led the Clippers with 26 points despite playing with a sore knee.
George had 21 points and nine rebounds coming off his career
playoff high that staved off elimination and brought his team back
home for another chance.
exhausted Clippers — who rallied from 0-2 series deficits in
getting to the West finals for the first time in franchise history
— had little left in the tank. They were again without two-time NBA
Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who has been out with a right knee spain,
and center Ivica Zubac. He missed his second straight game because
of a MCL sprain in his right knee.
from a suite to the bench for the game, his eyes staring from
behind a black mask.
over the end of the third and well into the fourth, scoring 14 of
Phoenix’s 16 points after the Clippers closed within seven late in
the third. He hit three 3-pointers in the final quarter, falling on
his back and getting fouled on one of them.
stretched their lead to 17 points in the third, dulling the Staples
Center crowd. Five different players scored, highlighted by Jae
Crowder’s fifth 3-pointer and Booker’s dunk. Crowder finished with
19 points. Deandre Ayton added 16 points and 17 rebounds.
briefly re-energized themselves and the fans with a 10-0 run that
drew them to 89-82. Morris and Nicolas Batum each hit
But Paul closed
on his own 8-0 run, including two three-pointers, that sent the
Suns into the fourth leading 97-83.
the clear plastic mask he’d worn to protect his broken nose in the
last three games. He got elbowed in the nose defending George at
the end of the third, and played with the mask on in the fourth.
Moments later, DeMarcus Cousins earned a technical foul for
elbowing Paul in the neck.
most of the first half, using runs at the end of each quarter to
gain breathing room.
Suns: They were
17-31 from 3-point range and owned a 54-34 edge in the paint.
George scored at least 20 points in his first 19 games to begin the