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Booker, Dieng fail to tussle in tunnel during blowout of Suns

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) leaves the game after being ejected during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — Already down centers Deandre Ayton and Richaun Holmes, the Suns couldn’t afford any more absences while facing the Timberwolves for the second time in three days.

As it was, a cylinder was already beginning to misfire when second-leading scorer T.J. Warren went to the locker room two minutes before halftime with a sore right ankle. By the break, the Suns trailed by 15.

Phoenix’s deficit read 82-62 on the scoreboard when leading scorer Devin Booker was ejected with 5:24 left in the third quarter. Suddenly, another forgettable blowout, a 118-91 loss to Minnesota on Tuesday, turned memorable.

The tension began boiling when Booker took an elbow from Minnesota’s Gorgui Dieng, then shoved Dieng on the ensuing inbound after some jawing between them.

After a scrum was separated, an official review was held and both had been ejected. Booker met eyes with Dieng as the T-Wolves big man threw his thumb backward, as if to say, “Meet me in the back.”

If the Suns guard and T-Wolves forward were actually thinking about “exchanging jerseys” as Dieng told reporters after the game, Booker was halfway there.

Booker mouthed an “OK, I’m going,” to Dieng’s challenge and sprinted into the opposite tunnel at Talking Stick Resort Arena with Suns director of team security Max Cayard pulling him by the waistband.

Apparently that restraint was enough. According to 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s John Gambadoro, security succeeded holding Booker away from his own locker room, even though Dieng nearly reached the door — apparently very serious about exchanging those jerseys.

“He talked to me, I talked to him back,” Dieng said, according to the Associated Press. “I think he tried to hit me. Everybody could see I didn’t throw a punch. In this league a lot of guys think they are tough and they are not.”

The two players never met, and so the aftermath was only about keeping the Suns’ best player on the court for one game rather than more.

“We have to find a way to protect our best players,” said Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov. “But also we want him to stay part of the game. He has to be with the team and whatever he does, he has to maintain his composure and his emotions have to be under control, because we need him on the court. We don’t need him in the locker room.”

After the game, Cayard escorted Booker from the arena before the locker room opened for the press gathering outside it.

In the end, maybe Booker’s ejection wouldn’t have mattered.

He scored 14 points in 24 minutes before departing after his second technical foul. His first came in the second quarter, when he earned a quick whistle while clapping in celebration of a foul called in favor of Phoenix.

It wasn’t clear if he’d have been ejected had that unassuming technical not occurred. Dieng, after all, got the boot after one.

Phoenix had been out-muscled anyway. The Timberwolves won on the boards 64-34, beating the Suns on the offensive glass 20-5 for 19 second-chance points.

And without Ayton and Holmes for the second straight game, the T-Wolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns took off from the start. Little-used Suns reserve Dragan Bender held his ground without making blatant mistakes, but Towns hit 20 points by halftime only to finish with 25 — he also grabbed 18 rebounds and had seven assists as the Timberwolves hit 15 of 42 threes.

If energy was a problem for the Suns, Bender and forward Josh Jackson weren’t to blame.

Bender backed up a double-double Sunday, his first significant action this year, with a line of 13 points and 10 rebounds.

Meanwhile, Jackson came off the bench playing at a different speed than the other players on the court. He scored 11 first-quarter points, hitting jumpers, pushing the pace off rebounds and attacking the seams in the halfcourt.

“I was just being aggressive, just trying to play a little bit fast,” Jackson said. “We were playing smallball a little bit and that’s something that we talked about playing them the last time, is that we wanted to keep the pace up and keep always pushing the tempo.”

Jackson finished with a game-high 27 points to go with 10 rebounds and three assists after starting the second half for Warren, who is dealing with a chronic soreness the Suns were already monitoring heading into the game.

Just five days ago against the Toronto Raptors, Jackson earned his own ejection after losing his cool, earning a flagrant and a technical following a non-call by officials. So the value of player availability remained fresh in his mind following Booker’s hasty exit.

“We’ve been all been there before,” Jackson said. “Too bad I couldn’t get to him before.

“Hopefully, I’ve learned from it, he’s learned from it. Just can’t let our emotions get the best of us all the time. We really could have used him out there at the end of the game.”

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