LOS ANGELES (AP) — Tears welled in Chris Paul’s eyes. A message in black ink on his shoes said it all: Can’t give up now.
Not when, after 16 years, he will finally play for an NBA title.
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.
“I was on a don’t-lose mission,” Paul said. “Just a lot of emotion. A lot of (things) going on.”
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 finals.
“He was tired,” Suns coach Monty Williams said of Paul. “He was still making those kind of plays, getting to the basket, 3s, orchestrating everything.
“He has persevered through a lot — injuries, playoff heartbreak.”
Paul missed the first two games against the Clippers after testing positive for the coronavirus. He injured his shoulder in the first round against the Lakers. Add in numerous surgeries and making the conference finals one other time, only to fall short.
“It’s been a lot, I’m telling you,” he said.
Paul reached 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 without ever getting past the second round. 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. Paul’s family, including leaping 12-year-old son, Chris, celebrated in a suite.
“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 had the league’s second-best record in this pandemic-interrupted season. They knocked off the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round and swept Denver in the semifinals.
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 six games.
Their only other finals appearance was in 1976, a loss to the Boston Celtics in six games.
Things got 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.
“We knew we broke them,” Jae Crowder said. “There’s no better sign. That’s a great feeling to have.”
Marcus Morris 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.
But the 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.
Leonard moved from a suite to the bench for the game, his eyes staring from behind a black mask.
George said the series would have been different with Leonard available.
“You are talking about one of the best players being out and we are inches from being to the next round,” he said. “It’s a lot of what-ifs, but we didn’t make it.”
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said, “I thought we ran out of gas. For that first half, we made a lot of mistakes mentally. That tells you guys are tired.”
Paul dominated 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.
“I kept asking him, ‘You tasting it? You tasting it?’” Crowder said. “He said, ‘No.’”
But with an unbeatable lead, Paul and the other starters sat down.
“He’s like, ‘I’m tasting it now,’” Crowder said, smiling. “It’s great to see him get over the hump.”
The Suns stretched their lead to 17 points in the third, dulling the Staples Center crowd. Five different players scored, highlighted by Crowder’s fifth 3-pointer and Booker’s dunk. Crowder finished with 19 points. Deandre Ayton added 16 points and 17 rebounds.
“Phoenix did a hell of a job,” Lue said. “CP was fantastic. Booker is a star at a young age and they have a good foundation. They played a hell of a series and go from there.”
The Clippers briefly re-energized themselves and the fans with a 10-0 run that drew them to 89-82. Morris and Nicolas Batum each hit 3-pointers.
But Paul closed on his own 8-0 run, including two 3-pointers, that sent the Suns into the fourth leading 97-83.
Booker ditched 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 brought the mask back out in the fourth. Moments later, DeMarcus Cousins earned a technical foul for elbowing Paul in the neck.
Suns: They were 17 of 31 from 3-point range and owned a 54-34 edge in the paint. … Tied 50-all, the Suns outscored the Clippers 16-7, propelled by Crowder’s 13 points — including three 3-pointers — to go into halftime leading 66-57.
Clippers: George scored at least 20 points in his first 19 games to begin the playoffs. … He had six points in the half on 3-of-8 shooting, missing all three of his 3-point attempts.
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