A tightly contested conference finals game, one in which the final result is in doubt right up until the final seconds, should, by definition, be an exciting thing to watch. Seeing the best teams and best players give each other the business for 48 minutes is what the damn playoffs are all about, and close, nerve-wracking games are what we tune in to see. Or at least I thought that was all true until I watched the Suns and Clippers play in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, a game during which they proved beyond doubt that a close playoff game can also be the worst game you’ve ever seen.
The Suns claimed victory, 84-80, and with it a 3-1 series lead. That putrid final score, which was somehow achieved without either team (as far as we know) suffering from mass vertigo, doesn’t even accurately convey the ugliness of this game. Yes, there were a ton of missed shots—the teams shot a combined 34 precent from the field and 17 percent from three—turnovers, and fouls. But there were also mystifying strategic and individual decisions, agonizing reviews of bungled yet meaningful plays, and the overriding sense that whichever team managed to avoid chewing their own hands off would win the game.
The nice thing about a basketball game is that no matter how poorly played and bad to watch it has been, there is nothing stopping it from ceasing to be a Bad Game and, all at once, becoming a Good Game. All it takes is for a few players who were missing shots or not defending or making dumb mistakes to stop doing those things in the fourth quarter—even just the last half of the fourth quarter!—to turn what was once a slog into an exciting contest. So long as the score is close, there is always a chance for even the worst, least entertaining game to be rescued at the end.
Such a rescue was all anyone could hope for when the fourth quarter of last night’s game began. By the time the third quarter had ended the Clippers had nearly completed their comeback from a 14-point halftime deficit, and everything was set up nicely for both teams to finally get their shit together and give us a good finish. But then things just got worse! The teams combined to make just seven field goals in the quarter, and the basketball was so bad that not even the closeness of the score could have made anyone watching wish for anything other than for the whole thing to just be over as soon as possible. The Suns “won” the quarter, 15-14, and the score stayed locked at 71-70 from the 10:07 mark all the way to the 6:23 mark. The Clippers had 12 possessions in the quarter during which they could have tied the game or taken the lead, and they went 0-12.
Who can we blame for all of this? Chris Paul, whose whole reputation is built on his ability to control and orchestrate the game as he sees fit, shot 1-of-7 from the field in the fourth quarter despite repeatedly getting to his favorite spots on the floor. Paul George and Reggie Jackson, trying to hack together some sort of 1-2 scoring punch on the fly in Kawhi Leonard’s absence, took 12 combined shots in the final frame and put the ball in the bucket just twice. And we must reserve some extra ire for the officiating crew and Suns head coach Monty Williams. The former helped extend the godawful proceedings by stopping the game to review several foul calls, and the latter did the same by instructing his team to intentionally foul the Clippers while up by three points down the stretch. At least Williams’s shenanigans gave us the closest thing to a highlight that this game had to offer, that being DeMarcus Cousins rocketing the ball off the backboard while trying to miss a free throw on purpose and getting called for a violation:
The truth is that a game like this doesn’t happen without everyone involved doing their part to cover it in crud. And so perhaps there is nothing to do but salute the players, officials, and coaches who all worked in perfect harmony to author 48 minutes of truly bad basketball. Any one of them could have broken ranks at any time and undermined the effort, but they all held firm in their quest to turn a conference finals game into the worst game of the season. You gotta hand it to them.