EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Devin Booker revives Phoenix Suns to win Game 2 vs. Clippers
Apr 19, 2023, 12:27 AM | Updated: 1:09 am
PHOENIX — Through five quarters of basketball, Kawhi Leonard was the best player in the first-round series between the Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns.
Simplicities and complexities be damned. For as much as there is going on in postseason basketball, that was what mattered the most considering the amount of star power Phoenix has. It plays four guys capable of being that in any given matchup.
After a first half that eerily resembled a surprising Game 1 loss that was headed in a similar trajectory, surely one of them would answer the call.
Devin Booker picked up the phone, saw the bat signal in the sky, whatever you want to call it. He dominated the second half through a unique combination of basketball skill and power of will in a 123-109 Suns victory to tie the series up 1-1.
Booker contributed 25 of his 38 points and six of his nine assists across 17 minutes and change that began in the mid-second quarter when Phoenix was down 13 and it looked like this might be the third straight series the opposition just has its number.
He handled the offense by playing point guard and manipulating the game. Phoenix scored on 10 of its last 11 possessions in the first half and that flow carried over. There were certain moments in the third quarter when Booker was directing traffic, moving the chess pieces around to create a great opportunity somewhere. He kept getting downhill over and over, singlehandedly resuscitating Phoenix’s offensive flow by making every Clipper rotate and finally giving the Suns some pace in half-court sets.
Through all of Los Angeles’ adjustments, including many over the course of the two games, Booker had cracked the code. He figured them out.
“I feel like he’s an oversized point guard to be honest,” Kevin Durant said of Booker. “A guy that can initiate, make plays for others, quick getting to the rim, either hand — so he can do pretty much everything at that point guard position. So when he got it, we played a little faster. We got so many options with him shooting the 3, getting to the middy or the free-throw line. We gotta continue to explore all those options.”
Durant said it was just about every possession with things changing when it came to the Clippers’ instantaneous tweaks. When asked about all this, Chris Paul said, “That’s T-Lue,” a nod to Los Angeles head coach Ty Lue.
“I think when they do that, we just have to simplify it,” Booker said. “A lot of things that we haven’t seen before but they have a veteran team that can do it on the fly. I don’t think a lot of teams can do that and I remember our last series with them they had a lot of stuff with them too. So when they’re doing that, just simplify it for us.”
Just about every look for the Suns was a good one, and in the middle quarters, they shot a preposterous 67.5%.
“Came out, settled into it, seen what they were doing and went from there,” Booker said.
How comfortable did he feel through that stretch of floor manipulation?
“Comfortable,” Booker said.
Fair enough! It was reminiscent of a certain other point guard, if I do say so myself.
Crucially, the Clippers had started missing shots and began showing real slippage, which the Suns jumped all over. That sniffing out by Phoenix of the blood in the water and the ability to immediately change the tide of the game speaks to its playoff experience, particularly Booker’s.
The Suns were still only up five through three quarters but then Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton got in on the fun in the final frame. Despite that two-man game not working out in crunch time on Sunday, Phoenix was unafraid to go back to it and its faith in those two was rewarded
Paul, still hesitating on open 3s, looked like himself again with not only the makes in the midrange but the degree of difficulty on them. After the Clippers got back within six at 3:13 to go, it was a Paul middy, Ayton layup through contact and Paul middy to wrap up the proceedings.
Phoenix shot 64% from the midrange compared to the Clippers’ mark of 34.8%, per Cleaning the Glass. Even more wild was the Suns’ 16-for-22 conversion rate on midrange attempts outside 14 feet, a 72.7% matter of efficiency to more than double the incredibly uncharacteristic 8-for-25 (32%) knockdown rate on Sunday. Talk about regression to the mean!
This was aided by a much better job of getting Durant the ball in his spots, primarily through screens near the basket facing the baseline, otherwise known as a pindown that will release Durant toward the foul line.
He can score from anywhere but it seems like he enjoyed getting back to that left side of the floor, going 7-for-7 on 2s in that range.
Kevin Durant's shot chart from Game 1 to Game 2. pic.twitter.com/sYfYntVuuI
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) April 19, 2023
Durant was 10-of-19 for 25 points with six rebounds, five assists, a steal and two blocks in 44 minutes after 45 in Game 1.
Booker played a game-high 45 in Game 2 and shot 14-for-22 from the field. His two-way energy was borderline maniacal with how hard he was playing after 43 minutes on Sunday. We talk about in this space how tremendous of shape he’s in and there’s now a two-game sample over three days to point at as the defining on-court examples.
The crazy part is, if this were to be ranked in his all-time postseason performances, it might not even crack the top five. He’s developing quite the reputation already for how he steps it up for the grandest stage of ’em all.
“It’s that time of year. Everything counts,” Booker said.
Paul’s 8-of-14 production for 16 points and eight assists was needed, as were the 14 points and 13 rebounds from Ayton. Craig added 16 points with five huge 3s, proving Williams right for sticking with him in the starting lineup.
“Craig made just about every big shot for us tonight,” Paul said. “If you watch the games, it’s the timing of the shots. Sometimes when the team’s got a chance to cut it from six, four, three — and then Craig would hit a 3 to put us up nine. It was the timing of the shots he made and that’s big in this series.”
Phoenix shot 58.8% with 30 assists, the seventh time in the last decade a team has managed to reach those two marks in a playoff game, per Stathead.
The white-hot offensive production covered for what was still a relatively shaky performance when it came to what needed to be corrected from Game 1.
The Suns managed only 24 3-point attempts (making 10), an overall shot profile the Clippers will live with once again after it was 19 on Sunday. Los Angeles’ offensive rebounding dipped from 15 to 12 but the second-chance points increased from 12 to 21.
The rotation was still searching for answers and the two stars’ minute totals were a byproduct of that. Booker’s only rest came across 2:31 in the second quarter. Can’t disagree with the desperation given the direction the game was headed but that is not sustainable for a team with championship ambitions.
While bench production was still far in favor of the Clippers, 30-13, the trio of Bismack Biyombo, Josh Okogie and Landry Shamet were far better on Tuesday and made up what was more or less an eight-man rotation. With that being said, there were still strange sequences with the changes, like when Okogie checked back in 45 seconds after the end of the first quarter or Damion Lee’s brief two-minute stint that point toward problems.
Even worse, Phoenix had some drop off in its point-of-attack defense and rim protection. There were a handful of easy layups for the Clippers after they once again did well in generating 3s (11-for-30, 36.7%).
There is never just one person or group to point the finger at for these types of things but it begins as an indictment of the coaching staff and they’ve got to do a much better job the rest of the series and the postseason.
At a certain point, Leonard was not only the best guy on the floor but Russell Westbrook was right behind him. Those two cooled off for enough time in the middle quarters for the Suns to burn them before they got warm again. Leonard finished with 31 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals while Westbrook was once again really good with 28 points, five rebounds, five assists and two blocks.
Phoenix made some adjustments defensively in the second half, like hedging on Leonard’s ball screens to crowd him and productively helping more off Westbrook. It has to utilize more of those aggressive looks in the future.