LOS ANGELES — Neither team could make a shot. The ball bounced crazily on and around the rim, but rarely went in.
In timeouts, the Suns only talked defense. The Clippers deliberately missed free throws in a desperate attempt to retain possession and fire up a 3-pointer.
In the end, former Clipper Chris Paul made clutch free throws on a night when everyone was missing.
Devin Booker scored 25 points before fouling out in the final minute and Phoenix escaped with an 84-80 victory Saturday night to take a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals.
The Suns can advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993 with a victory Monday night in Phoenix.
“We’re not looking too far ahead,” Booker said.
The Clippers rallied from 0-2 deficits to win against Dallas and Utah and reach the West finals for the first time in franchise history.
“It’s going to be hard and tough, but it has to be one game at a time,” Paul George said. “Play as hard as we can in Game 5.”
The Clippers struggled with poor shooting in all but the third quarter, when they made 10 of 17 shots to pull within three points. They got within one four times in the fourth, but could never take the lead in front of a sellout crowd of 18,222 that hung on every agonizing miss.
“It was a crazy, emotional game,” Paul said.
LA shot 32% (27 of 83) for the game; Phoenix was barely better at 36% (31 of 86). The Clippers, who led the league in 3-point shooting during the regular season, made five; the Suns hit four.
“That was a slugfest,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “It wasn’t Offense 101, for sure.”
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said, “We had a chance to take the lead on 12 possessions and couldn’t do it. It just wouldn’t fall for us.”
Deandre Ayton added 19 points and a career playoff-high 22 rebounds, and Paul had 18 points and seven assists.
George had 23 points, 16 rebounds and six assists before fouling out with 1 second left. Reggie Jackson added 20 points for the Clippers. Ivica Zubac had 13 points and 14 rebounds.
The Clippers successfully challenged a call in the final minute that led to Booker’s sixth foul. Terance Mann scored and they trailed 79-76.
The final 13 seconds turned into a free-throw shooting contest, with the Suns fouling to try to keep the Clippers off the 3-point line. Paul made 5 of 6. The Clippers were 4 of 8.
With injured Kawhi Leonard again watching from a suite, the Clippers outscored the Suns 30-19 in the third after trailing by 16 in the first half.
Both teams’ offense collapsed in the fourth, when the Suns outscored the Clippers 15-14.
“It was tough because we fought all the way to get it to a one-point game, and we had looks that we normally make all season and they weren’t falling,” Mann said. “The game could have easily went a whole different way if we were hitting those shots.”
Booker picked up his fourth foul early in the fourth, along with a technical for arguing the call. That put George at the line and he made 2 of 3, missing the last one that would have tied the game for the first time. Instead, the Clippers trailed 71-70.
It stayed that way for minutes, with both teams going ice cold.
“At that point, you’re just relying on your defense and mental stamina,” Williams said.
George said, “You just try to play through it and get a breakthrough.”
Paul tossed up an alley-oop pass that Ayton slammed and Booker hit a jumper, keeping the Suns ahead 75-72.
Maddeningly, shots either rimmed out for both teams or hit the rim and bounced away, creating frantic scrambles for loose balls.
“It was a skirmish under the basket with the ball bouncing all over the place,” Williams said.
Paul ran off seven straight points early in the third, dropping his old team into a 13-point hole.
But the Clippers outscored the Suns 20-10 from there and trailed 69-66 heading into the fourth. Phoenix went without a field goal over the final few minutes of the third, when Booker made 4 of 6 free throws.
The Clippers shot 13 of 44 in the first half. None of them could get it going: George and Jackson were 3 of 11 and Marcus Morris was 1 of 6.
Phoenix raced to leads of 14-2 and 20-9 in the first quarter. The Clippers made just one of their first seven shots — a dunk by Zubac. Seven of George’s 11 points in the half came on a 3-pointer and four free throws.
Booker picked up three fouls in the first half, two of them within minutes of each other in the second quarter. At that point, the Suns were up by 16.
Suns: Abdel Nader saw his first action of the series after being out rehabbing his right knee. He was scoreless in five minutes.
Clippers: George scored his 430th point of the playoffs in the first quarter, giving him a career high for total points in a single postseason.
NOT SO MASKED MAN
After missing a layup, Booker ditched the clear plastic mask he’d been wearing since getting his nose broken in a head-to-head collision with Patrick Beverley in Game 2.
“You don’t realize how much you get hit in the face until after you take it off,” he said, adding that he isn’t used to playing with it on.
Booker said he’s not sure whether he’ll wear it in Game 5.
Ayton showed up at the arena wearing a T-shirt of Booker and his bandaged nose.
“He said, `I was hiding it from you on the bus,’” Booker said.
Ayton said, “My boy got all banged up. Just sending a little message.”
DO AS I DO
Paul said he was thinking of his 12-year-old son, Chris, when he went to the line in the fourth.
“I talk to my son all the time about the importance of making free throws,” he said. “How the hell am I going to tell him to stay poised if I don’t?”
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