PHOENIX — In the final seconds of a first half that did not go all that well, Torrey Craig grabbed a rebound and rushed down court. In his third year with the Suns, Craig long ago learned that Devin Booker usually is somewhere with his hands in shooting position. Crossing to the left side, Craig spotted Booker and flipped him the basketball.
Can one shot change a series? Unless it’s a game-winner, maybe not. But two games into this Western Conference playoffs battle, this felt like a significant moment. For most of six quarters, the fifth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers had overpowered the Suns. They defended better. They rebounded better. And they had Kawhi Leonard, the best player on the court.
Booker on Tuesday night changed the conversation. With time running out, the Suns guard dribbled left one time and drilled a game-tying 3-pointer just before the halftime buzzer, the biggest shot in fourth-seeded Phoenix’s 123-109 win at Footprint Center.
“I’ve been here long enough to (know) that anytime the clock’s running down, just look for those guys,” Craig said, referring to Booker and teammate Kevin Durant. “Because they’re elite at making shots. That’s what they do.”
Booker’s shot fired up a sold-out home crowd. The Suns rode the momentum into the third quarter, slowly taking control of a game they had to have. Tuesday’s win evened the best-of-seven series, 1-1. Game 3 is Thursday in Los Angeles.
Booker had played fine in Sunday’s series-opening loss, but the Suns had faltered in the closing minutes. The 26-year-old admitted it wasn’t a good feeling. His method for coping after the game: “I just got on Call of Duty and blew some steam off,” he said, sitting alongside teammate Chris Paul at the postgame news conference.
“That’s all he do is Call of Duty,’’ Paul said.
“That’s our generation, man,” Booker said.
Entering Game 2, the Suns’ keys were fairly obvious. They had to get off to a better start. They had to find a way to slow Leonard, who had torched them for 38 points. And they had to limit the Clippers’ offensive rebounding, which had sealed Phoenix’s fate in Sunday’s final minutes. All this had been emphasized, and yet, the Suns really didn’t improve much.
Fast start? With 5 minutes 32 seconds left in the second quarter, the Clippers led by 13.
Slow Leonard? The Clippers forward finished with 31 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists.
Defensive rebound? Phoenix had a 35-32 rebounding edge, but the Clippers still grabbed 12 offensive rebounds and had 21 second-chance points, nine more than they had in Game 1.
This could’ve gone terribly wrong for the Suns — and for a while, it looked like it might — but the game changed in the second quarter. First, the Suns started getting stops. Coach Monty Williams said during a timeout just about everybody on the bench talked about the need for better on-ball defense.
“They were just blowing by us, getting to the basket for layups,’’ Williams said. “Once we stopped them from doing that and got the ball, we were able to get out and run and that generated some energy.”
Booker took it from there. After his 3 knotted the game, 59-59, at halftime, he led a third-quarter surge that had Phoenix hitting nine of its first 10 shots. Booker hit a floater in the lane. He stripped Clippers big man Ivica Zubac and dunked. He buried a 3. Going back to the final minutes of the first half, Booker scored or assisted on 17 points in a 23-4 Phoenix burst.
After the Game 1 defeat, Williams had said the Suns looked “disorganized” offensively. In the second half of Game 2, Booker took over play-making duties, probing, finding holes in the defense. On one play, he drove baseline not with aggression, but with pace, looking for an open teammate — and then suddenly rising up to drop in a reverse lay-up, a move that seemed to surprise everyone in a Los Angeles uniform. Not much later, Booker dribbled across the lane, drawing attention and dishing to Craig in the corner. As Craig fired a 3, Booker ran down court confidently, peeking over his shoulder just in time to see Craig’s shot splash through the net.
So much of this first-round series has been about Durant squaring off against Leonard, two of the game’s best forwards, two former champions and finals MVPs. Instead, it was Booker who took over Game 2.
“He’s an oversized point guard, honestly,” Durant said. “A guy that can initiate, make plays for others. He can do pretty much everything at that point-guard position. When he got it, we played a little faster.”
Williams planned to sub out Booker a couple minutes into the fourth quarter, but Booker kept scoring.
“One more play,” Williams thought.
Booker made a shot.
“One more play.”
Another Booker bucket.
“So I just let him go,’’ Williams said. “When he’s attacking like that, and he was knocking down big shots from outside, it just keeps everybody off balance.”
Booker finished with 38 points and nine assists in 45 minutes. He shot 14 of 22 from the field and made 4 of 7 from deep. It wasn’t his best postseason performance — in Game 1 of the 2021 Western Conference finals against the Clippers, Booker had a 40-point triple-double — but it was what the Suns needed. Or rather, what they had to have.
“When he’s going like that, I think the team feeds off his high-level play,’’ Williams said.
Durant had 25 points. Paul showed flashes of his younger self, scoring 16 points, 8 coming in the fourth quarter. From inside the arc, the Suns were an absurd 21 of 29 in the second half. Overall, they shot 58.8 percent.
“It’s that time of year,’’ Booker said. “Everything counts. I think with the talent that we have on this team, spacing is a big thing. Trying to give Kev space, trying to give CP space, just putting everybody in the best position to succeed.”
He did it better than anybody.
(Photo: Kate Frese / NBAE via Getty Images)
A multi-lingual talent head, Allen is fluent in languages such as Spanish, Russian, Italian, and many more. He has a special curiosity for the events and stories revolving in and around US and caters an uncompromising form of journalistic standard for the audiences.