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Tuesday night was a reminder of how fast a playoff series can change. Game 2 of their first-round series put the Phoenix Suns through the whole gamut of emotions.
There was ecstasy, as Devin Booker singlehandedly carried the Suns with a masterful first-half performance. His 31 points on 12-of-18 shooting, including 7-of-10 from 3-point range, turned an 8-point deficit into a 5-point lead at the break.
Throw in the baby dap, and even as the Pelicans made a third-quarter charge, there was reason to believe Booker would not let Phoenix lose that game. As has been the case so many times this season, it felt inevitable that it would ultimately be the Suns’ night.
But then came the agony, when Booker came up lame chasing down a Jaxson Hayes fast break and immediately went to the locker room.
The Suns eventually ruled him out for the rest of Game 2 with “right hamstring tightness,” and despite rallying to reclaim the lead early in the fourth quarter, Phoenix came up short against the 8-seeded New Orleans Pelicans, 125-114.
“It’s part of the game,” Chris Paul said. “We got guys that’s more than capable of stepping up. Book was killing. He was having a big-time game, but it is what it is.”
Booker’s immediate reaction to his hammy, as well as his body language upon returning from the locker room to the bench dressed in warmups, was hardly encouraging:
With the series tied 1-1, the sky is already falling for Arizona sports fans. Whether it’s the offensive rebounding issue, Phoenix’s uncharacteristically poor defense over the last six quarters of this series or Willie Green out-coaching Monty Williams to this point, fingers are already hovering over the panic button.
It’s almost like people haven’t been watching this Suns team all year long.
“No matter how you slice it, it’s 1-1,” coach Monty Williams said. “I’ll whine and feel bad about it tonight, but we’re 1-1, and it’s a long series. We get to go to their place, and we’ll do what we do. We’ve been really good on the road, historically good on the road. We’ve played without Chris and Book before; if we have to play without Book, next man up. And we’ve done that all year long.”
The impulse to panic and overreact in a playoff setting is natural; there’s no room for slip-ups at this stage, especially for a historically dominant team that’s looking to do what no Suns team has ever done in more than 50 years of the franchise’s existence. Anything less than a title would be devastating for a group that won 64 games, beat every team in the association and had more motivation than anyone after coming up short in last year’s NBA Finals.
But as much as it feels like the perfect storm is brewing, and as much as Booker’s status for the rest of this series is the big rain cloud looming overhead, doubting this Suns squad now feels shortsighted. After all, this is a team that went 64-18 despite missing Booker for 14 games, Paul for 17 games, Deandre Ayton for 24 games and a handful of other key players for various stretches throughout the season.
“We’re gonna be ready, man,” Mikal Bridges said. “That’s our brother, so obviously we hope everything goes right. But I know everybody’s ready to step up, so we’ll be ready. We went through the regular-season games without him and C and DA, so we’ll be ready for sure.”
The Suns went 8-6 without Booker this season, including 5-2 during a seven-game stretch in November that he missed due to a left hamstring strain. That injury kept him off the court for 19 days, though it’s worth noting Phoenix erred on the side of caution at that point in the season.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t Booker’s first brush with this type of injury. In the NBA Finals, he played through a hamstring issue that came up in Game 3. In January 2021, he missed four games with a left hamstring strain, sidelining him for 10 days. He missed two games in February of 2019 (returning after six days) as well as nine games in December of 2018 (returning on the 21st day), both due to a hamstring issue.
Fortunately, it doesn’t appear that Booker’s hamstring strain is serious:
Soon after Adrian Wojnarowski’s report, the Suns released an update, saying: ““Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker has sustained a mild right hamstring strain, an MRI confirmed today. There is no timetable for his return and updates will be provided as appropriate.”
Booker is expected to miss Games 3 and 4 in New Orleans, but the Suns not ruling him out for the series yet is a very positive development. The Suns don’t play again until Game 3 in NOLA on Friday, with Game 4 on Sunday and Game 5 next Tuesday.Williams and company initially spoke about the injury like they may be without him for the immediate future.
“You gotta look at it as we prepare for anything to happen,” Cam Johnson said. “Sometimes unfortunate things happen, you just gotta continue to work, continue to play.”
The problem is, the Suns haven’t looked like themselves for the majority of this first -round series, even with Booker’s elite shot-making carrying them early in Game 2. The Pelicans have scored 30+ points in four of the last six quarters, outscoring Phoenix in four of those six as well.
On Tuesday, the Suns’ top-five defense gave up 69 second-half points on 67.5% shooting. Brandon Ingram took over late, dropping 26 of his game-high 37 points in the second half, as well as 11 rebounds and 9 assists on 13-of-21 shooting. CJ McCollum notched 23 points, 9 assists and 8 rebounds on 6-of-10 shooting from long range.
And even though the Suns “limited” New Orleans to 11 offensive rebounds and 15 second-chance points, the Pels got way too many leak-outs, racking up 16 fast-break points. Hayes, who looked unplayable in Game 1, killed them in that respect, prompting Williams to say it was the worst transition defense he’d seen during his time in Phoenix before calling it “unsettling,” “deflating” and “Basketball 101.”
“No,” Williams said when asked whether he had any theories for his team’s poor showing. “I mean, a theory, I don’t know. I just know I don’t like it. None of us like it. I thought we did a much better job with their offensive rebounding, but then the transition defense, coupled with the number of 3s they got off tonight and made, it was just a bad combination.”
And yet…as bad as it’s been the last six quarters, buying into this unfamiliar version of the Suns being the one that will show up for the next two games in New Orleans seems foolish. Phoenix seemed stumped as to how that kind of disappointing effort could happen on their own court, and Friday’s game — with more doubt creeping in from the outside with Booker sidelined — represents their chance to rectify the situation.
They looked like they needed a kick in the ass in Game 2, and Booker’s injury elevating the stakes of Game 3 sure provided it.
“The most important thing for us right now is Game 3,” Paul said. “That’s it. And I think that’s the thing, adversity. We’ve all faced it at some point, and so, like we say, next man up. We’ll figure it out, and Game 3 is the most important thing right now.”
Chances are, the Pelicans — who ranked 27th in the NBA in 3-point percentage this season — aren’t going to shoot as well as they did in Game 2. They’ve been a different team with Ingram healthy and McCollum added to the mix, but their 17 made 3s and 56.7% conversion rate from downtown both represented season highs.
If that’s what it takes to beat the Suns in a seven-game series, good luck banking on that happening three more times. Wild 3-point variance often had a hand in Phoenix’s losses this season, but there’s a reason it only happened 18 times: The Suns were the NBA’s fifth-best defense in opponent 3-point percentage.
“Our defense was kind of spotty tonight,” Paul said. “It’s almost like we hoped they missed tonight instead of making ’em miss. So we’ll go back to the film, look and see what we could do better and be ready for Game 3.”
Game 2 felt like a gut punch with Booker’s injury, but in a larger sense, it was a wakeup call for everyone else. Paul shot 5-for-16, and when he couldn’t score on Hayes, he was beat back down the court for leak-outs. Jae Crowder has shot 2-for-15 to start the series. Cam Payne has shot 4-of-12 with 4 turnovers in his 34 minutes.
Phoenix probably can’t win a title without Devin Booker, but for this series and perhaps the next one, they can still advance by getting back to basics. The role players need to step up, and there’s no better time to do so if the Suns’ best player is sidelined for the next chunk of games.
“We’ve been in this situation before where Book or Chris have been out,” Williams said. “Now we gotta make that adjustment, but it’s going to start with playing with a great level of intensity in every area.”
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