EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Concerning Devin Booker injury overshadows Suns’ slow start, loss to Rockets

Mar 2, 2024, 11:10 PM

PHOENIX — Every loss from here on out for the Phoenix Suns should come with the “hard-fought” qualifier in front given how close they are to a play-in fate.

Saturday’s 118-109 final versus the Houston Rockets was, but not at the start of it. That’s enough for Phoenix to lose right now and is a lesson it has repeatedly learned over the course of the season.

Perhaps the Suns got caught looking ahead to a closing stretch of 13 out of their last 22 games against teams in the top-7 of the standings. One of them, Oklahoma City, is at Footprint Center on Sunday. Regardless, they should have been ready for how hard Houston plays after seeing it firsthand twice in the previous eight days.

And if that didn’t hammer home how delicate Phoenix’s position is, Devin Booker injuring his ankle near the conclusion of the game should.

While Booker was defending on the ball, he went to step with his right foot on a spot where Royce O’Neale’s left foot was. Booker tried his best to avoid it but did so in a way where he sprained his right ankle and O’Neale turned his slightly in the process as well.

“It just happened so fast. It was just a freak play,” O’Neale said of it.

With it being that freak an accident and at this point in the season, it’s hard not to pair it with Durant’s slip in pregame warmup last season.

As soon as Booker could get up, he immediately made his way back to the locker room with a heavy limp. Head coach Frank Vogel said x-rays were negative on Booker.

Like last year with Durant, these are games the Suns can’t afford to lose Booker for. The concern with Durant was establishing continuity after a mid-season trade, and while that’s still true for this year given how much time Bradley Beal has missed, Phoenix is now facing an arduous task of remaining in the top six for however long Booker is out.

“Just let it go. Let it go. Quick turnaround,” Durant said of how Phoenix mentally moves on to prepare for the Thunder. “We gotta just focus on the next team. I’m sure guys in their minds are going to play back the game and see what they could have done better, coach is going to watch film to see how we could be better and we just move on and get ready for the next one.”

As for the game, the Suns’ poor shooting start on offense and lackadaisical effort on defense quickly put Houston ahead by as many as 20 in the first quarter. Phoenix’s energy was certainly lacking but it also had a half-dozen shots go in-and-out on the offensive end.

At a few different points, the Suns were able to cut it down to just a few possessions, only for the Rockets to stack up the advantage back to double digits.

The comeback efforts were thwarted by Houston, and Phoenix losing two starters mid-game didn’t help, either.

In the mid-second quarter, Jusuf Nurkic was making a defensive play around the basket when he took an accidental smack in the head from teammate Josh Okogie.

Nurkic, not one to spend much time on the floor, was down there for nearly a minute while holding his head and looking dazed. He checked out and was ruled out for the second half due to a neck sprain. He is one of the most valuable players on the team. Phoenix is 0-4 without him.

A period later, Beal was attempting to quickly inbound the ball underneath the Suns basket when some chippiness with Houston’s Jalen Green resulted in a spirited conversation while Green hovered over Beal on the baseline. Officials rarely let a defender get in that space, but here, they just weren’t on it. Beal comically doinked the ball off Green’s head before later passing the ball in.

Green kept his hand in there after contesting the pass and that was enough for Beal, just like Booker reaching a similar point with Cam Whitmore on Thursday. The difference was that after Beal smacked Green’s hand away, he greeted Green with a face wash straight out of the NHL to inspire the kerfuffle.

Following a review, Beal was given two technical fouls and ejected. Green received one. It was Beal’s first game back since Feb. 13 from a hamstring injury.

At the start of the fourth quarter with Phoenix down nine and shorthanded, minutes for the first game of a back-to-back were an issue. Durant played 40 in the win on Thursday and was at 28. Booker had reached 31 following 39 on Thursday. Also, Eric Gordon (left groin soreness) was out again and Grayson Allen’s ultra-consistency wasn’t there in one of his few poor games this season.

Durant started the final frame as usual and Booker checked back in with over eight minutes left. As soon as he did, two more baskets followed as a part of a 7-0 run cut the deficit to three with 7:52 remaining, the closest Phoenix had gotten since the second quarter when it got down to one. An Okogie transition layup a minute later got it down to one before a Fred VanVleet 3 and Green lob off a Durant turnover extended the edge back to six.

It was a microcosm of Phoenix’s failed attempts to get back in it all night and was the last comeback effort left.

Green followed up his 34-point effort on Thursday with 34 again on Saturday, adding nine rebounds, four assists and two steals. VanVleet provided 24 points and 11 assists.

Durant’s shot-making on some very tough finishes was great for 30 points on 12-of-19 shooting but he had six turnovers to two assists. Before Booker got hurt, it was five assists and five turnovers for him to go with 24 points.

O’Neale was great once again with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

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