Devin Booker took a dribble near the right baseline, looking to further cut into a Phoenix Suns’ deficit that had already been cut to six points. But as he rose into his shooting pocket, the ball was slapped out of his hands by Los Angeles Clippers guard Patrick Beverley.
From there, Los Angeles was out and running. The ball landed in the arms of center Ivica Zubac, who began an outlet sequence to guard Reggie Jackson for a layup. Suns point guard Chris Paul missed a 3-pointer on his team’s next possession, and Jackson responded with a triple in transition.
Phoenix’s comeback chances were dashed. The Clippers’ five consecutive points snapped a 12-0 Suns run, which had cut their deficit from as large as 18 points to 89-83 with 7:11 to play. Phoenix shot just 4-of-14 from the field for the remainder of the game, thwarting another spurt.
Despite that tough sequence, it was not what defined the Suns’ 106-92 loss to the Clippers in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals on Thursday night in Los Angeles, snapping their nine-game playoff winning streak. Phoenix initially fell in a big hole when it was beaten 34-21 in the third quarter, the most points it had been outscored by in any period this postseason, and had rare off shooting nights from its two All-Star guards, Booker and Paul.
Devin Booker: 15 Points - 23% FG - 1/7 3PM— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) June 25, 2021
Chris Paul: 15 Points - 26% FG - 2/7 3PM
Clippers take Game 3. pic.twitter.com/2aoBLvSmfr
“We just didn’t match their force, and like I said, you have to give them credit,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We have to understand that playing against a team that was going to play with that kind of effort every quarter, and we’ve been pretty good in third quarters, so that was a bit surprising for us.”
Leading 48-46 at halftime, the Suns immediately gave up a 14-5 Clipper run, led by eight points from Los Angeles forward Terance Mann and two driving shots from guard Reggie Jackson. From there, the Clippers went on an 11-3 spurt, building a 71-56 lead with 3:31 to go in the period.
In that stretch, Phoenix shot 1-of-6 from the field, had three of its 10 turnovers and appeared thoroughly outplayed at both ends of the floor. At one point of a huddle broadcasted on ESPN, Williams said to his team, “They can’t be the most desperate team. That’s unacceptable, it’s the playoffs.”
It was a much different tone for a Suns group that has prided itself on being relentless, an immalleable force that its opponents would be unable to bend or break.
“They outplayed us tonight,” said Paul, who played for the first time since June 13 after missing Games 1 and 2 due to health and safety protocols. “We didn’t make shots, you could tell they had a lot more energy. I got to be better, I shot terrible.”
In his first game of these conference finals, Paul struggled mightily from the field, making just 5-of-19 shots for 15 points and 12 assists. On the surface, those are good numbers but a struggle is a struggle. He told reporters afterward that he “messed around a little bit” on the court at his house but did not have a normal basketball routine away from his team, which noticeably affected his rhythm on Thursday.
“I thought I played him too much,” Williams said. “...and that’s on me. But I think as he practices more and plays more — he hasn’t done anything in 10 days. So I think he’ll get better, he’ll be much better in the second game from the conditioning standpoint, this next game.”
Paul played just under 39 minutes on Thursday night — his second-most this postseason, just behind the Suns’ Game 4 victory over the Denver Nuggets in the semifinals — in large part due to the absence of backup guard Cameron Payne, who suffered an ankle injury in the final minute of the first quarter.
Payne did not return to the game, appearing to limit the Suns’ pace of play from the first two contests. Despite assisting 24 of its 35 made shots, Phoenix shot just 38.9 percent from the field, its worst shooting performance since its 101-97 win over the Charlotte Hornets on March 28, when it made 35.4 percent of its attempts.
“Offensively tonight, we weren’t sound at all,” Williams said. “You look at the point totals in the first, third and fourth — they played good defense tonight but we didn’t run our offense the way that we have been running it for most of these playoffs.”
The Suns’ collective shooting woes embodied a tough individual outing for Booker, who tied his worst shooting clip of the season by making 5-of-21 shots for 15 points. After breaking his nose in three separate places when colliding with Beverley in Game 2, Booker wore a face mask throughout Thursday’s game, which he said he asked former Detroit Pistons guard and reputable mask-wearer Richard Hamilton for advice for.
Masked Book baby.— The Bright Side (@BrightSideSun) June 25, 2021
Had his nose broken in three separate places, according to ESPN's Rachel Nichols. pic.twitter.com/YsDM2Hhcpv
Outside of a few drives to the paint, Booker appeared very uncomfortable with the mask, adjusting it every few seconds he was on the court. He also seemed bothered by Beverley, who has limited Booker to a 4-of-15 shooting clip on possessions he has guarded him in this series.
After his 40-point triple-double in Game 1 in which he shot 15-of-29 from the field, Booker has combined to shoot 10-of-37 (27.0 percent) in the Suns’ last two games, his worst two-contest stretch dating back to Feb. 2020, when he shot a combined 7-of-27 (25.9 percent) in losses to the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers.
Despite the rarity of his slump, Booker said he is confident that he will break out of it.
“The best advice that my dad gave me when I moved with him when I was 13 years old was, ‘Have a short memory in this game,’” Booker said. “‘On to the next play, on to the next game, on to the next possession.’ So the quicker you can have a short memory and just be confident in yourself and the work that you’ve put in, I’ve pretty much seen every type of situation on the court, so I believe in my work.”
The Suns were led offensively by starting center Deandre Ayton, who finished with 18 points on 9-of-13 shooting and nine rebounds. He had 10 of his points in the first quarter but was not targeted extensively for the remainder of the game, something Williams said he would look into before Game 4.
“We as a team can do a better job of getting [Ayton] the ball,” Williams said. “That’s on me, that’s something that whether we post him up or hit him more as he’s diving to the basket — they were taking him out. I thought we tried to force it a few times, tried to make interior passes when the corners were wide open.”
Hope is not lost for the Suns. They still lead their series against the Clippers two games to one and have an opportunity to take a 3-1 lead on Saturday before a crucial Game 5 in Phoenix.
However, they will have to respond to a rare moment in which they were outplayed by their opponent. It’s something that Paul, their leader, expects them to do.
“We’ll be ready for Game 4,” he said.