DAN BICKLEY

Adversity hits Suns in playoffs once again with Devin Booker injury

Apr 19, 2022, 10:42 PM | Updated: Apr 20, 2022, 12:46 pm

PHOENIX — Adversity lurks in the NBA playoffs. But it seems to reside in Phoenix.

Grab the aspirin and the antacids. Here we go again.

The Suns lost in shocking yet familiar ways on Tuesday. They slogged dispirited and disconnected through a 125-114 loss to the Pelicans in Game 2 of the Western Conference quarterfinals. A front-running team with a target on its back should know better than to throttle down in the postseason, sleepwalking through a pivotal home game.

Now, for the really bad news:

The Suns lost Devin Booker to a hamstring injury in the third quarter, interrupting a performance for the ages. He spent the fourth quarter watching from the bench. It was yet another example of how fragile basketball teams and dreams can be in the postseason.

“I think it happened on one play, when he was trying to track down someone in transition,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “That’s where I think it happened. Other than that, we don’t have much else to say about it.”

During their record-setting regular season, the Suns fared remarkably well without their top performers. That is a silver lining. But the loss of Booker clearly took its toll on Tuesday, pulling the fire alarm on a first-round series that should’ve been void of drama.

Chris Paul, Jae Crowder and Cam Johnson struggled to make shots. Deandre Ayton took only six field goal attempts in 33 minutes. The Pelicans pushed the tempo in the second half, burning the Suns in transition. And in the fourth quarter, the visitors closed the deal with a clinic in clutch shot-making.

“That was probably for us the worst we’ve ever looked in transition since I’ve been here,” Williams said. “And for that to happen in a playoff game was unsettling.”

The Pelicans earned this victory. Their resilience has been a revelation. They have made it clear they will not surrender easily. Brandon Ingram provided the star power and the firepower, scoring 37 points and lifting his team with a series of spectacular shots down the stretch.

But the Pelicans also made 17-of-31 shots beyond the three-point arc. That is indefensible for a Suns team capable of elite defense, and Paul felt they were hoping the Pelicans would miss instead of helping them miss.

“We normally don’t get outplayed from an intensity standpoint,” Williams said. “You have to give them credit.”

Booker’s injury is another lump in the throat for Valley sports fans. It conjures up our awful history of misfortune and missed opportunities in playoffs past. It was also a damn shame for a player in the midst of a transcendent performance, scoring 31 points by halftime, including seven three-point shots.

“Book was killing it,” Paul said. “He was having a big-time game.”

Booker had also provided the first Hallmark moment of the postseason. After spilling to the floor following a gorgeous fadeaway, he looked up in the crowd and saw a father holding his child. He extended his arm, fist-bumping the baby.

In last year’s run to the NBA Finals, the Suns had a handful of these moments. There was the young fan who stole the show by ripping off his shirt in a show of pride. There was the Valley-Oop and the stunned look on the faces of Michael Wilbon and Stephen A. Smith. There was the Suns in Four guy who brawled his way into infamy.

Fist-bumping a baby? The NBA was surely grateful for Booker’s gesture, the antidote to Kyrie Irving’s middle fingers in Boston.

But Booker’s night was soon unplugged. The moment lost its luster. And depending on the extent of the injury, the Suns might have to win this series without him.

“No matter how you slice it, it’s 1-1,” Williams said. “I’ll whine and feel bad about it tonight, but we’re 1-1. It’s a long series. We’ll go to their place and we’ll do what we do. We’ve been really good on the road, historically good. If we have to play without Book, (it’s) next man up.”

Next man up?

It’s a phrase Phoenix basketball fans have heard too often. Especially this time of year.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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