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NEW ORLEANS — The Phoenix Suns have dealt with injuries to key players all season long, but that didn’t stop them from winning a league-best 64 games. Without a concrete timetable for Devin Booker’s return from a Grade 1 right hamstring strain, they’ll be relying on what they learned during that time to get them through the first round of the playoffs.
On Thursday, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Booker could miss 2-3 weeks with the hamstring injury he suffered in the third quarter of Game 2 Tuesday night. Based on the history of such injuries, players have typically needed 14-21 days to recover.
At practice in New Orleans on Thursday, coach Monty Williams shot down any specific timeframe coming from outside the organization.
“I mean, it’s no different than what we reported,” Williams said. “We didn’t put a timeline on it. We said it was a Grade 1 hamstring strain, that’s all it is. I’ve been told about a timeline, but we never did that. So for now, there is no timeline. We’ll give you a better update as the days progress, but wherever there was a timeline, it didn’t come from us.”
On Wednesday, the Suns initially called it a “mild right hamstring strain” and said there was no timetable for his return. There were reports he had not yet been ruled out for the rest of their first-round series against the New Orleans Pelicans as well.
In any case, Booker is out for the foreseeable future, and has been officially ruled out for Game 3. He did not do anything in practice on Thursday, even as he made the trip with the team to NOLA.
“It’s part of the game, man, and he’s here with us,” Chris Paul said. “He could’ve stayed back, you know what I mean? But I think he understands how important he is to our team emotionally. He let us know everything he sees on court, and we’ll go from there.”
For a team that’s had to play stretches without Booker (14 games), Chris Paul (17 games), Deandre Ayton (24 games) and more this season, this is familiar territory — even if it’s not particularly comfortable.
“I don’t think there’s ever comfort when you don’t have all of your guys, but there is experience in the uncomfortable,” Williams said. “And I think that’s where our guys have learned when we play to our standard, which we don’t believe we’ve done yet consistently, and they’ve played to theirs.
“So from that standpoint, no, there’s no comfort not having Book on the floor, but we also know that we’ve been able to do it without Book, without Chris, without DA from time to time. Everybody’s missed games except Mikal [Bridges], and we’ve been able to navigate those situations well this year and we know we can do it.”
The Suns went 8-6 without Book this season, as well as 11-6 without Paul and 18-6 without Ayton. Phoenix only played 38 games with all three of that trio available.
“It gives you a reference point,” Williams said. “Our starting lineup doesn’t have a large sample size of minutes together, and we were able to win 60-plus games. So for me, it’s all about playing to our standards. The rebounding in Game 1, we were able to win even with giving up 25 [offensive] rebounds. Last game, it was a just number of things that we didn’t do well, and I talked to the guys about that today. Like, we have to play to our standard no matter who is on the floor. And I think that’s where we have a ton of confidence.”
With the Suns focusing on playing to their own standards, the defensive end of the floor is at the top of the list, especially in transition. The Pelicans got 16 fast-break points in Game 2, with many of those being simple, uncontested looks where Phoenix lost track of guys leaking out.
“We matched the physicality, we matched the rebounding, but you just gotta guard the ball and we just got to stop fouling,” Ayton said. “That’s about it. Just get back to our standards. We checked everything off the list off of Game 1, but we couldn’t stay in front of the ball.”
Even without Booker, the Suns have more than enough to win a first-round series that is suddenly knotted at 1-1 after their disappointing Game 2 performance. Paul is one of the longest-tenured and most-respected playoff threats in the league, and he was sitting pretty as the Suns’ leading MVP candidate for the first half of the season. Ayton and Mikal Bridges have taken strides this year. Cam Johnson and Cam Payne are two of the league’s best bench players. Jae Crowder is due for a good shooting night. And even without Booker, Phoenix’s top-five defense needs to make a reappearance.
The Suns won’t be relying on any one player to fill Booker’s shoes either, whether it’s Landry Shamet or Cam Johnson who gets bumped up into the starting lineup.
“We’ve never done that,” Williams explained. “When Chris was out or Book’s been out or DA’s been out, we’ve never gone to one guy and said, ‘Hey, man, you need to do whatever.’ We just felt like as a team, one, we can hang our hats on our defense, and that’s where it starts for us, and two, that leads to increased production from our team.”
After a game where the Suns felt they took too many plays off, the motivation and sense of urgency the playoffs provide should return as well.
“If you not motivated just to begin with, then you in the wrong profession, ’cause this is the playoffs,” Paul said. “But obviously, that’s our leading scorer, a guy we thought should’ve been MVP of the league this year. And so without him, I think a lot of guys probably think you gotta do more, but we just gotta sort of do more together, not individually, and I think we’ll find a way to do that.”
From the offensive rebounding issue to stopping clean transition looks to preventing easy slot 3s and corner 3s, everything from Game 2 needs to be better on the road Friday night. The Suns can provide Booker the rest he needs if they take care of business, but naturally, everyone else’s minds will continue to wonder when he’ll be back on the floor.
“It’s one of those deals that he’s had a number of times in his career, and we just have to wait and see how he progresses for the next whatever many days,” Williams said. “But it is a finicky injury, because if you’ve ever had one, you know, like, you can feel really good until you start to do what NBA players are required to do, and then you’re like, ‘Okay, I can’t do that as well as I want to.’ So we just have to wait and see.”
In any case, Devin Booker’s absence and the surprising Game 2 loss may have been the wakeup call this championship contender needed. “Everything you want is on the other side of hard” has been one of the team’s credos for the last two years, and now their experience with the uncomfortable needs to pay off.
“I feel like I’ve been here before,” Ayton said. “I think when we got the L, I was like, ‘Yep, we here now.’ Once you get that little stinger, it’s like, ‘Okay now.’ But we’re here and we’re ready. We got punched in the face, now we gotta answer back.”
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