Suns face elimination, search for Devin Booker’s help returns in Denver

May 9, 2023, 11:30 PM | Updated: May 10, 2023, 7:42 am

Devin Booker (1) of the Phoenix Suns claims a foul to referee David Guthrie (16) during the western...

Devin Booker (1) of the Phoenix Suns claims a foul to referee David Guthrie (16) during the western conference semifinal game 5 against Denver Nuggets at Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado on Friday, May 9, 2023. Denver won 119-102. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

(Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

DENVER — As the song goes, “Here I go again on my own. Going down the only road I’ve ever known.”

The first line is for Devin Booker. The second is for the everyday Phoenix Suns watchers that have seen the tremendous beginning to his eight-year career time and again result in him not getting the assistance a superstar needs.

The Suns won 121 games in Booker’s first five seasons, and midway through that, it became his team and his franchise. In the following three campaigns, they won 160. And the similarities that are triggered in the postseason are jarring.

The Suns traded for Chris Paul and got two straight All-NBA seasons out of him, only for Booker to end both postseasons attempting to carry the team singlehandedly. The Suns then traded for Kevin Durant, who would have been an MVP candidate with his ridiculous regular season if he played enough games.

And here we are, on the road again. Phoenix lost Game 5 in Denver on Tuesday 118-102, putting it down 3-2 and facing elimination.

This was only really a game at halftime. And in a testament to how out-of-this-world Booker has been the last month, his efficient 19 points with four rebounds and three assists in the first half was the worst form he’s been in lately. He was still really, really freaking good but outside of some solid moments for Kevin Durant and T.J. Warren, he got near nothing from his teammates.

And the group as a whole completely lost its cohesion it discovered in Phoenix that looked like the Suns clicking into place both offensively and defensively.

The Suns’ playoff exit last year involved two totally different Phoenix teams depending on if they were at home or on the road, except for Game 7. That is the pattern in this series. The home team has always looked like the far better unit. More together, more in sync.

On Tuesday, the Suns’ superb attention to detail and effort in the little areas like transition defense, halfcourt rotations and finding a body for rebounds was lacking immediately. When factoring in the context, it was arguably Phoenix’s worst first quarter of the year.

“From the start, they came out (and) they were more physical than us from the beginning,” Booker said. “They played well at home like they have all year. They just came more ready than us.”

In addition, Durant missed seven of his first eight shots and his desire to get them back returned. He attempted 16 shots in a first half in which he only got two seconds of rest. It was not within the flow of the offense. He was the offense.

Durant will scan the box score during his postgame press conferences, and he said after Game 4 that 19 shots attempts told him his flow within the offense was in a good spot. Durant said after the loss Tuesday he could have taken some better looks in the opening frame.

Phoenix was down 15 with a minute remaining in the first quarter but a dismal second quarter from Denver (27.2% shooting) allowed the Suns to creep back into the game and trail by just three at halftime.

But as the second half got underway, the Suns’ lack of playoff-level execution reared its head yet again. Denver went on a 7-0 run in the opening two minutes and the deficit grew to 16 another 120 seconds later.

Suns head coach Monty Williams found the right supporting cast in Phoenix. Then Landry Shamet had to start the second half Tuesday because of the need for offense off the double teams, and two minutes into the half, Cam Payne was pulled, too.

It was the type of game we’ve seen before when Booker senses it’s going to have to be only him and he just goes for it. The Nuggets put Aaron Gordon on him in the third quarter for spurts and that was a good move. Booker was 1-for-8 in the third quarter, and when he broke in a sideline-to-sideline sprint to try to steal a transition pass, he came up laboring. He had a fall in the first quarter that appeared to be an issue with his foot or ankle, so it’s unclear if that was him tweaking that again or something else.

Either way, his burst was gone after the steal attempt. It wasn’t good considering those explosive movements to attack off the bounce have made him the best player in the postseason. At that point, he should have been pulled. Williams kept him in as Denver extended its lead to 21 late in the third.

Williams said postgame they think Booker is OK and wouldn’t have had him out there if he wasn’t. Booker gave his usual response of feeling fine but when asked on the specifics of the play in the third quarter, he said everyone is dealing with something in the playoffs and referred to “a little bruise.”

It is not unlike him to play through stuff at this stage of the season. Williams admitted after the 2021 Finals that Booker played through a hamstring injury in Game 3.

A 39-25 third quarter from the Nuggets was the first time on Tuesday they looked like the terrific group they’ve been for the majority of this series. Combine that with a 35-24 Denver first quarter that was more about the Suns being bad and it was a 74-49 edge for Denver for the opening quarter in each half.

“In the third quarter, it was nothing like we’ve put on the floor this year from our standards of translating all the stuff that we’ve built up going into halftime into the third quarter,” Williams said. “I just felt like we played with great pace the last two games (and) they nullified that with physicality and we stood still a lot tonight. Didn’t move them around enough. It started in the first, and then in the third, they upped it even more.”

The first half of Game 5 and pretty much all of Game 2 were two gigantic missed opportunities for Phoenix.

Williams inexplicably left Booker and Durant in for the first half of the fourth quarter when the game was clearly out of reach. Booker’s 41 minutes and Durant’s 42 could have had a few extra chopped off. When Phoenix cleared its bench with 4:18 left in the game and Durant at the foul line, Durant stayed toward the Suns’ part of the sideline for a plan to intentionally foul that took 18 seconds for them to execute. That was a nice summation of how the night went.

The only Suns players to provide anything meaningful on either offense or defense were Booker, Durant, Warren and Terrence Ross (three 3s). That is a big-time indictment of Deandre Ayton, who was back to how he played in a must-win Game 3.

The engagement of the center on a max contract was inconsistent all night, to extremes beyond the lulls we’ve grown to know. Phoenix cannot win this series, let alone a championship, if he can’t lock in for more than a handful of moments each night. That’s probably why he will still start Game 6 but we’re at a juncture now where Jock Landale has undeniably been better in the series over a large enough sample size to give him the nod over Ayton. Sometimes, plus-minus does tell the story. Ayton is a team-low -59 and Landale is a team-high +27.

We’ll see.

Durant ended up at 26 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and five turnovers on 10-of-24 shooting. He continues to put together really good lines on nights he’s not playing to his full capabilities. It is both a testament to how proficient he is at basketball and also not good enough given what Phoenix expects out of him.

Booker did the same with his 28 points (8-for-19), six rebounds and four assists.

Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. had 14 of his 19 points in the first quarter after the Nuggets’ third-leading scorer behind Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray in Game 3 contributed 11. Bruce Brown added 25 off the bench and Jokic’s brilliance continued with 29 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists.

Fastbreak points were 31-23 Denver. The Suns’ pace was still a factor but its denial of Denver’s was a huge issue.

Williams was surprised to look at the box score and only see 18 points off turnovers for Denver because of how many momentum plays Denver had.

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