While walking off the floor after an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, Devin Booker whipped out his phone to make a FaceTime call.
On the other end? Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul, who was not in attendance for his team’s first game of the Western Conference Finals due to health and safety protocols. Booker grinned as he carried Paul toward the Suns’ locker room, where they celebrated their first win on that stage since the 2009-10 season.
“We know we had him all the way through,” Booker said of that moment. “We brought him in the locker room, we had him in our after-game room. So he’s proud of us.”
Make no mistake: the Suns aren’t the same team without Paul, who helped them orchestrate a 51-win season and numerous cultural enhancements. Like a conductor, Paul helped unify Phoenix into synchrony after it spent the last decade in disarray.
But even without Paul’s guidance, the Suns had enough harmony to pull out a hard-fought 120-114 win over the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Sunday afternoon at Phoenix Suns Arena.
Led by Booker, who recorded his first career triple-double with 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists, Phoenix shot a playoff-best 49-of-89 (55.1 percent) from the field, assisted 31 of those makes and showed poise by overcoming a 16-2 Clipper run in the third quarter that threatened its unity.
It was a performance that Booker — in his first time on this stage and through previous Suns teams that would have folded — especially appreciated.
“It says a lot,” Booker told Nichols. “We’ve been relying on Chris all year, especially down the stretch, controlling the ball, making sure everybody gets involved. So this is a really big win for us.”
Without Paul for just the third time all year, the Suns started backup point guard Cameron Payne, who just over a year ago was out of the NBA. He made sure to assert himself on Sunday.
In 29 minutes, Payne had 11 points, nine assists and three rebounds, mirroring Paul’s game management skills. He finished first among Phoenix’s starters as a plus-13 and committed just one turnover, an effort Paul was certainly proud of.
“Still praying for C, hopefully we can get him back as soon as possible,” Payne said. “But I’m glad we got that [W] for him, and just looking forward to getting him back.”
With backup guard E’Twaun Moore struggling to make a contribution in extended minutes, Booker took on more of a playmaking — or ‘Point Book’ — role, especially in the second half. He had eight of his assists then and a 36.7 assist rate overall according to Cleaning the Glass, which was his highest mark since a 38.9 percent rating in a 116-113 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on April 21.
Booker had five assists in the fourth quarter, including a lob pass to starting forward Mikal Bridges to give Phoenix a 113-104 lead with 2:36 left. His efforts were crucial to the Suns’ effective playmaking, generating 20 makes on 42 shot attempts that were considered open or wide open, according to NBA.com.
“In the second and third, we started to play more point-five,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We were a lot better on the second side in the second and third quarter. Once there was a primary action and then we swung it and we played, I thought that was something that could help us.
“Any time in this league when you can touch the paint with a dribble, you’re either getting to the rim or finding guys on the back side. That’s how we want to play.”
For the fourth time in the last five games, each of the Suns’ starters — in this case, Payne, Booker, Bridges, forward Jae Crowder and center Deandre Ayton — exceeded double figures in scoring. Backup forward Cameron Johnson also contributed 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting, moving Phoenix to 22-2 this season in which at least six players score 10 or more points.
Ayton, specifically, had his sixth game this postseason in which he shot at least 70 percent from the field, scoring 20 points on 10-of-14 shooting along with nine rebounds.
With the Clippers employing a smaller lineup with 6-foot-9 forward Marcus Morris as their tallest player, Ayton used his size advantage in the paint, forcing Los Angeles to start 7-foot center Ivica Zubac in the second half and call for 13 minutes for backup center Demarcus Cousins.
“Y’all got to understand, I played Pac-12 basketball (at Arizona),” Ayton said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a [7-footer] in the Pac-12 conference. So I always played the four in college and switching on them guards and guards wanting to beat my feet. But I train, I train at this, I train my lateral quickness and I trust my defensive feet and hands.”
The Suns only appeared significantly threatened in the third quarter, when the Clippers went on a 16-2 run over a 3:28 span to take an 84-78 lead with 3:25 left in the period. Los Angeles starting forward Paul George had eight of his 16 third-quarter points in that stretch and finished with 34 along with five assists and four rebounds on 10-of-26 shooting.
But even without their leader, the Suns still persevered. Booker had 12 of Phoenix’s points in a subsequent 15-9 run to end the quarter, tying the game at 93 with positive momentum. It then went on a 12-2 run to start the fourth, building a 105-95 edge with 8:08 left after a putback dunk from Johnson.
Even when the Clippers had a late flurry with an 8-0 run to cut the Suns’ lead to 116-114 with 22 seconds left, Phoenix didn’t fold. Booker got to the rim for a two-handed slam after a timeout and secured a much-needed rebound with 4.6 seconds left to ice the game with two more free throws.
“It felt good, man,” Booker said. “We want to protect home court, so that was big for us to come out and secure that one.”
Back in the locker room, Paul watched the Suns celebrate their eighth straight victory, their longest streak this season and in their playoff history. But he reminded him there was still work to be done.
“Chris was excited, but he was holding up this (one finger),” Crowder said. “It was one game, we did what we was supposed to do.”
Paul will certainly be motivated to return to the floor and lead his team. He has never made an NBA Finals appearance in his career. The Suns have dragged themselves out of the mud of the last decade and are looking to make their first championship berth this century.
As many players agreed, Phoenix can’t do that without Paul. But its ability to get one step closer was an impressive sign of how this team — and its franchise — has come.
“We talked at the beginning of the season and said, ‘If we want to get to where we want to go, you know you’re going to have to come out of something,’” Booker said. “It’s not going to be gravy all the way through, it’s not going to be sweet all the way through. So our job is to control the controllables.”