EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Devin Booker channels new final form in Phoenix Suns’ win vs. Clippers

Apr 21, 2023, 1:09 AM | Updated: 2:06 am

Devin Booker and Russell Westbrook...

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) looks to get by LA Clippers guard Russell Westbrook (0) during the Phoenix Suns game versus the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 3 of the West 1st Round on April 20, 2023, at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

(Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — They all count the same in the win and loss column. It’s true in some ways, especially in the playoffs.

That is what the Phoenix Suns can tell themselves after a frantic and feisty 129-124 Game 3 win over the shorthanded Los Angeles Clippers to take a 2-1 series lead on Thursday.

Despite the Clippers being without Kawhi Leonard (knee) after he was scratched in the early afternoon, and still missing Paul George (knee), Los Angeles was able to more or less make this the same style of game. For whatever reason, the physicality and consistent changing of schemes from the Clippers is enough to completely not allow the Suns to find a period of sustained success lasting longer than a few minutes.

The exception was the bonkers shooting display in Game 2 across the middle quarters. But even then, Los Angeles cut the deficit down to six with a little over three minutes to go.

We could be looking at a 3-0 Clippers lead if not for the play of Devin Booker. We’ll start with his greatness before getting there.

Booker ended up with 45 points, six rebounds, three assists, three steals, two blocks and zero turnovers. It is the first time in NBA playoff history a player has reached all those thresholds with zero turnovers, per Stathead. Take away the turnover requirement and it’s still just three times ever: Elvin Hayes (1975), Hakeem Olajuwon (1994) and his teammate Kevin Durant (2021).

Booker shot 18-of-29 (62.1%).

“All-time great performance,” Durant said. “Playoffs like that, on the road, Game 3, 45 with that efficiency — I almost expect stuff like this from him at this point in his career. He set the tone. Getting to the rim, making plays for others — just controlling the whole game.”

Booker put in that result two days after a 38-point playmaking work of art filled with furious two-way energy in Phoenix’s Game 2 win, singlehandedly getting the Suns back on track.

“It’s what he’s been doing this series,” head coach Monty Williams said of it. “I told him after Game 1 he was the thermostat for the team and he set the tone and temperature for 48 minutes.

“… To have him that many minutes — and we needed it — and have that kind of production speaks to his ability to not just physically grind it out but mentally grind it out.”

In the bubble, I anointed Booker’s closer role in the last stages of a game as “The Bad Man.” The way he was able to completely take over games to influence their outcome for a few minutes during the most critical junctures would leave you saying to yourself, “That’s a bad man right there.”

This is not The Bad Man. This is something else.

Booker has been able to channel his relentless nature as a competitor and fuse it with an incredible basketball acumen to unlock a new final form. This is some “Dragon Ball Z” stuff. Just as you even start to think “Super Saiyan” has a ceiling, it crumbles into pieces and leaves the possibilities limitless.

Over the first three games of the series, Booker has rested for a total of 11:21. He got only one rest on Thursday, a 3:29 spurt in the second quarter. When Williams was subbing him out, Booker heavily resisted, motioning for his coach to reconsider.

You wouldn’t guess he’s the guy playing 45 minutes when watching the explosiveness in his movements, the way he is zooming to the basket and managing his footwork defensively late in these games still.

Think about how hard he must be working not just during the season, but in July, August and September to be at this supreme level of physical shape and athleticism. What Booker uses as motivation during those times is games like Thursday, knowing postseason moments are coming when he requires that extra push.

“I actually feel good,” Booker said. “This is what you ramp up for, this is what you prepare for. If it was up to me, I wouldn’t even went out those 12 minutes. My body feels good and it was a must-win tonight.”

Phoenix once again got off to a clumsy start. Booker picked up on it right away, and like his back-to-back 40 burgers in the 2021 NBA Finals, he was able to keep the offense afloat on his own. His 13 points felt like 31 to have the game tied through one quarter.

The Suns hit three straight triples in the late second quarter to go up eight, which felt like the crack in the Clippers’ armor that would finally see them start to fall apart. Nope.

Los Angeles got 22 points from Norman Powell in the first half to be within three at the half. He finished with 42 after amounting to just a combined 26 in the first two games.

Phoenix was getting a good whistle when seeking out contact in the first half so it doubled down on that effort to quickly get in the bonus less than five minutes into the third quarter and really started padding its free-throw total. That was led by Booker and Durant, aided by Los Angeles misses so the duo could get downhill in semi-transition even easier. The Clippers naturally started trapping, and that’s when Deandre Ayton made some key plays in the short roll after a tremendous struggle in the first half.

The Suns were up 13 with under five minutes to go in the third. Surely Los Angeles doesn’t have enough from there? Nope.

It kept hanging around. And around. And around. Phoenix at the 7:46 mark of the fourth quarter was now leading by just six. The Clippers had done a full gambit, daring Phoenix to use size to its advantage by deploying a five-guard lineup across the last nine minutes.

The Suns stuck with their traditional starting lineup, and the biggest benefit they saw was no rim protection. Booker scored in the key on three of Phoenix’s next four possessions to put the Suns back up 10 at 5:07 to go.

Durant got to the rim. Paul took his turn as well. 117-108 Suns with 3:44 on the clock.

Seriously. That’s gotta be it for the Clippers, right? Nope.

Phoenix kept whiffing on the final blow, whether it was an open Durant pull-up, open Chris Paul 3 or Paul floater. Thanks to a huge offensive rebound by Torrey Craig on that missed Durant jumper to get two free throws, Phoenix got some points out of it.

But with a seven-point lead and 2:10 remaining, Paul turned over an inbounds pass for two free Clipper points. Ayton drew a gigantic foul on the offensive glass off of a Booker miss during Phoenix’s next possession. Ayton, however, missed both free throws and Russell Westbrook made two of his own after getting a foul call when rebounding that miss.

It was a three-point game. Improbably. You know what, actually, it’s to be expected at this point with who the Clippers have proven they are. No more nopes.

Because of the extra attention on Durant, Craig knocked down what could comfortably be called a dagger open corner 3 at 1:24 remaining. A Booker basket shortly after all but sealed it, even after Powell got a four-point play with 30 seconds left.

The Suns were 35-of-46 (76.1%) at the foul line, nearly doubling up Los Angeles’ 19-for-25 (76%) mark, a big-time win for them after how much the math was not favoring them through two games.

Booker did not have a true wingman in this one and the Suns are now three games into the offense not coming close to reaching its potential. The only time it looks good for chunks of minutes is when Booker goes superhero mode to save the day.

Durant’s scoring contribution of 28 points was important and he got to the line (11-of-11). But he had six turnovers, and just when it seemed like the Suns were doing a good job of implementing him consistently in Game 2, he was in and out of the offense’s flow. Phoenix uses him too often as a spacer instead of including him in sets to get more value out of his gravity.

“I feel bad for Kev sometimes because’s he’s an expensive decoy out there,” Williams said. “He’s standing at the 28-foot hashmark and the defender is right in his face and that gives Book a number of opportunities to attack the basket.”

Booker credited Durant and said he was telling Durant during the game that he was opening up some of his chances. The second half for Durant was better but there’s a standard a top-five player like him is held to and he hasn’t reached it thus far in the first half of the series.

Paul shot 5-of-18 and 1-for-8 on 3s. Three of his four two-pointers were surprisingly at the rim. He had to play 41 minutes and Durant was at 42. It’s too many for those guys this early.

Ayton had a messy night with the lack of engagement defensively and force offensively that we’ve come to know when he’s in a funk. He was 4-of-9 for 12 points with 11 rebounds. All the talk of how much the Suns need Ayton to win a title takes away from the present time. They need him now to win this series. He has to improve.

It was the best game for the Suns bench thus far, with Josh Okogie’s five offensive rebounds and Damion Lee’s eight points as a spacer off of those traps making a difference. Craig’s 15 points were enormous and he’s been outstanding as a starter in three games.

Westbrook was great again for L.A., with 30 points, eight rebounds, 12 assists, three steals, a block and six turnovers. He had some chaotic turnovers but still had a tremendous positive impact in 40 minutes. Bones Hyland added 20 points off the Clippers bench.

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