Suns-Pelicans Game 3 preview: Replacing Devin Booker, immediate fixes

Apr 21, 2022, 7:09 AM

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker is unlikely to play in Games 3 or 4 of the team’s series against the New Orleans Pelicans after injuring his right hamstring in the 125-114 Game 2 loss on Tuesday, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

The good news for Phoenix is the Suns’ statement labeled it as a “mild hamstring strain” and Wojnarowski reports that it’s not the type of injury that already rules Booker out the rest of the series.

This changes the outlook of said series and Game 3.

But only by so much.

The work Phoenix has to do does not start with replacing Booker. It starts with the non-negotiables that were missing in the loss.

We, however, will begin with the biggest story in Booker’s potential absence.

Third-year forward Cam Johnson has played his best this season when thrust into these spots, filling in for either Jae Crowder or Chris Paul. Reserve guard Landry Shamet was the one to take Booker’s place when Booker missed 11 games due to injury. But after Shamet was not even in the rotation for Game 1, it would be surprising for him to be pushed into that spot.

On top of that, Johnson’s size will help with how big New Orleans plays and he can spend time defending both Brandon Ingram and C.J. McCollum like he did in the first two games of the series. The Suns, rightfully so, wanted to keep some of Johnson’s scoring pop on the bench at points for these decisions in the regular season but this is the playoffs.

In 16 starts across the regular season, Johnson averaged 16.3 points per game and shot 49.2% from the field, 42.0% at 3-point range on 7.4 attempts a night and 91.2% for his free throws. They need that right away.

I know the 50% shooting and 26 assists say otherwise but Phoenix had a lackluster offensive performance in Game 2, even when Booker was playing. The constant momentum and rhythm of movement wasn’t there. That’s actually timely because the Suns won’t be able to rely on Booker’s individual offense.

Their core offensive principles are a requirement to get past a Pelicans team they are still better than by a sizable margin without Booker. That’s no disrespect toward the Pelicans, who some are now realizing is not a team representative of a 36-46 record. That’s respect for the team the Suns were all season through a handful of injuries to every key player except Mikal Bridges.

I dream of a day when Booker gets his respect for how he not only gets his points within the Suns’ offense but also for how he is the main one responsible for maintaining its flow.

When he’s out, that’s always the No. 1 concern. The Suns’ offensive rating when Booker comes off the floor this season dropped from 117.6 to 107.5, per NBA.com. That’s going from the NBA’s best offense to the fifth-worst.

Last year, it was the same thing: 118.6 to 109.6. That dropoff of 10 points per 100 possessions was only half that with Paul this year and just two points last season.

Logically, this puts more of a burden on Paul to have the numbers higher when he’s on the court. But that’s the wrong way of thinking about it. The burden goes on the team as a whole to keep things moving, and it did in the regular season.

In those aforementioned 11 games Booker didn’t start because of injury, the Suns averaged 26.5 assists per game and had a 1.92 assist-to-turnover ratio. Both of those numbers would have ranked sixth leaguewide, a.k.a., they are pretty great!

Across those two stretches, several Suns bumped up their points per game without Booker: Deandre Ayton (19.3), Cam Payne (13.9), Crowder (12.1), Johnson (17.8) and Shamet (11.7).

The offensive balance that Booker keeps intact while he’s on the floor can still be maintained while that hammy heals up.

That, to me, is far less of an issue compared to how Phoenix played in Game 2.

The Suns have played worse basketball games this season, only a few, but I wouldn’t argue with claiming Tuesday should be at the top of the list given it was in a playoff game.

The team’s signature attribute of sharp execution done through laser focus was just not there. That needs to return, and there were a couple of key areas, starting with transition defense.

Pelicans players started releasing early out of defensive possessions with a sense of urgency the Suns lacked all night.

New Orleans head coach Willie Green deserves tons of credit for sticking with his two-big lineup and center Jaxson Hayes at the 4. I wrote about in my preview for Game 2 how I thought Green had to move him to the bench because of how much Hayes was getting picked on defensively but Green stuck by his player and it paid off.

Hayes was switching onto Paul a bit more often, a mismatch Paul has carved up over his career, but the point guard shot 5-of-16 on the night and wasn’t successful most of the evening in attacking Hayes.

When Paul was missing, that allowed Hayes to leak out. Sometimes it was just an untenable situation for Paul trying to defend a mobile Hayes, which is when his Suns teammates need to sprint back to help, and other times it was just terrible team defense in semi-transition.

All four of Hayes’ field goals came in these instances.

That’s how a non-factor offensively can become one.

It wasn’t just Hayes and it wasn’t just leakouts. There were some shocking, uncharacteristic transition buckets allowed by the Suns beyond Hayes that shined a spotlight on Phoenix’s mental disconnect.

Beyond that, the Suns’ below-average defense let the Pelicans get comfortable and they got burned for it.

Phoenix was far too OK with sacrificng in soft switch situations, possessions when the offense sends a lazy screen over to trigger a switch from the defense. Those are moments the defense can fight through instead of letting scorers like Ingram and McCollum get a more cozy matchup.

Ingram had 37 points and McCollum produced 23 but the most damning numbers were the nine assists each for both guys.

As Suns fans know, when Paul and Booker are both notching high assist totals, that means Phoenix is directly benefitting from the high amount of defensive attention that duo receives. A lot of the time, Booker will instead rack up hockey assists because of the extra ball rotation or two the Suns need to beat the defense.

New Orleans didn’t need many of those.

Some of those assists were passes to shooters the Suns have to live with giving up shots to, like rookies Herb Jones (33.7% 3-point percentage), Jose Alvarado (29.1%) and Trey Murphy III (38.2%).

New Orleans’ 17-of-30 (56.7%) 3-point shooting isn’t sustainable but the confidence Green got all of his guys to play through is. And now that group takes what it gained from the road to its home court the next two games.

That is why, more than anything, the Suns need to smack the Pelicans right back in the mouth for Game 3 and remind New Orleans who the best team in the world is. Phoenix doesn’t need that reminder for itself. It already knows that.

Williams’ situational gameplans that require quick adjustments for changing variables coming into a game have always been terrific. I expect another one of those on Friday in New Orleans and an emphatic Suns win.

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