The Phoenix Suns had to go into survival mode Saturday, outlasting the Los Angeles Clippers in the fourth quarter to earn an 84-80 victory to move one victory away from their first NBA Finals appearance in 28 years.
Devin Booker scored 25 points before fouling out and Deandre Ayton added 19 points with 22 rebounds as the Suns took a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals with their first chance to move on coming Monday at home.
The Clippers were unable to rally from a 2-0 deficit to tie the series like they did in each of the first two rounds of the playoffs and are now facing three-consecutive must-win games in order to advance out of their first-ever conference finals.
Paul, in his second game back from COVID-19 protocol, made five free throws in the final seven seconds to seal the victory. The Suns had just 15 points in the fourth quarter, but held the Clippers to 14.
"I couldn't make a damn shot but I'll tell you my nerves are a lot better out here playing than they are at home watching," Paul said on the ESPN broadcast after going 6 of 22 from the field. "I'm just happy to be here with my teammates and we'll keep on chugging along."
Paul George had 23 points and 16 rebounds for the Clippers, but shot 5 of 20 from the field and 1 of 9 from 3-point range, while Reggie Jackson scored 20 points but made just 8 of 24 attempts and 2 of 9 from behind the arc.
Los Angeles shot just 32.5 percent from the field as it played without Kawhi Leonard for the sixth consecutive playoff game because of a knee injury.
"I thought we played well defensively," Jackson said. "I have to play better offensively. We have to move the ball and find easy shots. And the ones we had tonight will probably go in the next game. Unfortunate break but we're ready for the challenge."
Trailing 50-36 at the half, the Clippers got back in the game by outscoring the Suns 30-19 in the third quarter. Los Angeles then had multiple chances to take the lead in the fourth quarter, but both teams went through a nearly four-minute scoreless stretch to keep the Suns ahead at 71-70.
Neither team shot well from the field in the fourth quarter, with the Suns shooting 21.1 percent (4 of 19) to 15.8 percent (3 of 19) for the Clippers. With Los Angeles in need of somebody to lean on while playing without Leonard, George was just 1 of 7 from the field in the final period.
"Just talking to our guys, we had 12 possessions in the fourth quarter to (tie or) take the lead," Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue said. "We just couldn't get over that hump. It happens. I like how our guys competed and fought all night. We held (the Suns) to 34 points in the second half."
Terance Mann got the Clippers within 79-76 on a layup with 58.5 seconds to play, shortly after Booker fouled out after a charge on the offensive end. Two free throws from Paul with 7.0 seconds remaining gave the Suns an 81-78 lead.
After an exchange of free throws, George made one for the Clippers with 3.2 seconds left to get Los Angeles within 82-80. He missed the second intentionally, but the Suns got the rebound and Paul made two foul shots to put the game away.
The Clippers finished just 5 of 31 (16.1 percent) from 3-point range in the game, while the Suns were 4 of 20 (20 percent). Phoenix shot 36 percent overall.
"I know we were in good hands and had a comfortable lead at five at the time and we came out with a big one," Booker said of his outlook after committing his sixth foul on a charging call with 1:05 remaining. "I have to do better. I can't have any cheap fouls. I have to be out there for my team but any way you can come out with a win in the playoffs, you have to get it."
Mikal Bridges had 13 rebounds for the Suns, while Ivica Zubac had 13 points and 14 rebounds for the Clippers. Mann had 12 for Los Angeles.