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Phoenix Suns take 3-1 series lead, inspired to get Chris Paul first trip to NBA Finals

Just one victory away from the NBA Finals, Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul said he will not allow himself to consider quite yet what it will be like to compete on basketball’s biggest stage for the first time in his 16-year career.

“Not until the job is done. Not until the job is done,” Paul said after the Suns’ gritty 84-80 win over the LA Clippers on Saturday to go up 3-1 in the Western Conference finals. “We can talk about all that then, but right now, it’s just laser focus.

“Three wins don’t win the series, so right now, we did what we came here to do. We wanted to get one of these, and now we got to stay focused and be ready to go back to our crowd.”

Paul, of course, has been here before. In 2018, his Houston Rockets were up 3-2 in the Western Conference finals versus the Golden State Warriors, before the defending champions stormed back to win the final two games, with Paul hobbled by a hamstring injury.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Paul said, looking back on the disappointment from three years ago. “Don’t dwell on things, you always remember, but I’m here now, excited about this opportunity, and all I can worry about right now is Game 5.”

Paul guided Phoenix to its victory in Game 4, playing all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter, when he scored seven of his 18 points and dished out two of his seven assists, despite struggling to shoot the ball.

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Paul was 1-for-7 from the field in the fourth — and just 6-for-22 for the game — though he did go 5-for-6 from the free throw line in the closing period.

“I was mad I missed [midrange shots] that could have put us up by five or seven, but it’s so crazy when I went to the free throw line I thought about my son,” Paul, 36, said of his trip to the stripe with 3.9 seconds remaining, and the Suns up by two, when he split the pair of attempts. “I talk to my son all the time about the importance of shooting free throws.

“I seriously went to the free throw line and I was like, ‘How the hell I’m going to tell him to stay poised if I don’t do it my damn self?'”

It would appear Paul’s son is learning from his dad just fine, judging by how Paul’s younger teammates rave about the example he is setting for them.

Deandre Ayton, who lived up to his “DominAyton” nickname with 19 points, 22 rebounds, four blocks and three assists in Game 4, exuded praise for the man who is 14 years his senior.

“I love CP, man,” said Ayton, 22. “That’s really the only teammate that really pushed me. Like big-bro-type push.

“I think he was the best thing that happened to my career. I can say that every day.”

Ayton said he would like to repay Paul’s investment in him by helping Phoenix to at least one more win this postseason so Paul can finally get a taste of the Finals.

“I’m going to try my best,” Ayton said. “I’m going to try my best. … I know how it is as an older player and being in the league and stuff like that. So, when you have an opportunity like this, you can’t take it for granted. And he let us know. He let us know, and we know the task at hand.”

Devin Booker, who ditched the face mask protecting his broken nose to score a team-high 25 points before fouling out, said that he grew up watching Paul.

“I’ve been a fan of his for a long time, and I’ve learned so much from him this year, and I always talk about off the court how he carries himself, and he’s just a true professional at every level at all times,” Booker, 24, said. “I have a lot of respect for him as a man, not even as a basketball player, just understanding how bad he wants this and how much time he’s put into it … 16 years, that’s a long time.

“We know how bad he wants it. … We definitely have his back.”

Suns coach Monty Williams, who coached Paul in the playoffs when they were both with New Orleans a decade ago, gave him a compliment of the highest order when asked how he feels about Paul controlling the action down the stretch.

“He’s not afraid of those moments,” Williams said. “It’s all about winning for Chris.” One more win. One more win and Paul will experience winning in a way he never has before.

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Richard Sherman wants to play two more seasons before retiring

Set to become an unrestricted free agent in March, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman’s next NFL stop is likely to be his last.

Sherman, who will be 33 in March and has long maintained that he wants to play until he’s 35, told Stephen A. Smith on his ESPN+ show Stephen A’s World on Monday that he intends to follow through on that plan and laid out what the rest of his NFL career might look like.

“I only want to play two more [seasons],” Sherman stated. “I want to get on a competitive team. I think I still have a lot to give to the game. I think I still have a lot that I want to accomplish and I think I can go out there and help a defense come together like it should and reach their potential, reach the heights that the defenses that I’ve played on have reached.”

When the new NFL league year opens on March 17, it will be Sherman’s second foray into unrestricted free agency but the first time following the expiration of his contract. In 2018, Sherman quickly signed with the 49ers after the Seattle Seahawks released him after seven seasons there.

At the time, Sherman was coming off a ruptured right Achilles suffered in November 2017. Acting as his own agent, Sherman negotiated a three-year, $27.15 million deal with the Niners that contained heavy incentives should he return to his previous All-Pro form.

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Sherman did just that in 2019, earning his fifth Pro Bowl nod and a spot on the second-team All-Pro squad. But the 2020 season was essentially a lost one for Sherman, who had a calf injury all season and appeared in just five matches.

In December, Sherman said it would take a “miracle” for him to return to the 49ers, given their many free agents and lack of salary-cap space to keep them. Among the players Sherman expects to get lucrative contracts from the 49ers before he would be in the mix are left tackle Trent Williams, cornerback Jason Verrett and linebacker Fred Warner, who is not yet a free agent but is entering the final year of his rookie contract.

That position hasn’t changed, either, as Sherman is still expecting to depart.

In speaking to Smith on Monday, Sherman mentioned the Las Vegas Raiders as a potential destination. New Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley was Sherman’s defensive coordinator in Seattle in 2011 and 2012, and is expected to install a similar defensive scheme to what Sherman played in with the Seahawks and the 49ers.

Furthering that connection, Raiders coach Jon Gruden raised some eyebrows last week when he showed on the podcast Sherman co-hosts with Cris Collinsworth and told Sherman the Raiders “are looking for an alpha presence in our secondary, somebody that could play this Hawk 3-press technique with the read step. If you’re available and interested, maybe you and I can get together at some point off air.”

In addition to the Raiders, there’s also an obvious tie to the New York Jets, who just hired former Niners defensive coordinator Robert Saleh as head coach. No matter where he heads, Sherman seems intent on finishing his career on his terms and his timetable.

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