DAN BICKLEY

No substitute for Devin Booker, Suns’ desperation in Game 3 win

May 5, 2023, 11:05 PM | Updated: May 6, 2023, 12:40 am

Desperation was on their side. So was Devin Booker.

There was no substitute for either Friday night at Footprint Center.

The Suns restored faith with a sturdy 121-114 victory over the Nuggets in a pivotal Game 3, soothing the nerves of a skittish fan base. They will restore order with another victory on Sunday.

“We’re just grateful for the win, grateful for all the contributions,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “And we’re going to need it again on Sunday.”

The heavy lifting was provided by the two Phoenix superstars. Booker and Kevin Durant scored a staggering 86 points in 85 minutes combined. No one else on the team approached double figures.

Booker and Durant took much different paths to their productivity. Booker was burning hot, exerting his will immediately after the opening tip-off. Durant continued to struggle with his shot but punished Denver with 16 of his team’s 18 free throw attempts.

It’s not the easiest way to navigate a postseason. There is the fear of attrition, and after the game, Durant admitted that he’s lost in his own head and thinking too much on the floor. But neither seems to mind the heavy minutes. And there is no other path to a championship for a team with a thin bench and no depth at point guard.

“I feel so good,” Booker said. “Blessed to be out here.”

Durant was certainly impressed.

“Can’t say enough about Book,” Durant said. “Just at a loss for words.”

During his tenure in the Valley, Williams has also been outcoached far too often in the playoffs. He has been reactionary and slow to adjust. But that wasn’t an issue on Friday.

Without point guard Chris Paul, the Suns rolled out a much different look in Game 3. A pair of defensive stalwarts — Josh Okogie and Torrey Craig — were almost afterthoughts in the revamped lineup while Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren went from the end of the bench to playing nearly 39 minutes combined. Warren responded with a couple of big buckets in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, Jock Landale gave the team hustle and energy and badly outplayed starting center Deandre Ayton.

“He just scrapped,” Williams said. “You couldn’t point out anything he did from a high-level skill perspective. But he just scrapped.”

Ayton scored four points in just under 26 minutes. His maddening motor and finesse approach incited the fan base, and many booed Ayton after he missed a finger roll attempt at the rim that should’ve been a ferocious dunk. Ayton is clearly struggling with his place on the Booker-Durant Suns, and this is a situation that bears watching.

“That’s life,” Booker said. “We’ve been around long enough to understand that every night is not going to be your night …. (but) energy and effort always has to be high, especially at this time.”

For now, the contributions from the bench were a pleasant surprise, and proof that role players always perform better in the comfort of home. Without Paul on the floor, the Suns played with greater pace, and the results were encouraging.

Will Williams stick with his new rotation? Can they hold up defensively in Game 4?

Here’s the good news: The Suns are still waiting for that transcendent performance from Durant, one of the greatest players in NBA history. When it happens, it will be a most welcome addition to the series.

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.

Dan Bickley

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