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Devin Booker came out firing, left limping, and the Suns season hits biggest adversity yet

Series now tied 1-1 with 3 of next 4 in New Orleans, the Suns now in a tough spot to beat Pelicans

NBA: Playoffs-New Orleans Pelicans at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

A season ago, the Phoenix Suns stormed into the NBA playoffs, then immediately had to survive a multi-game injury to their MVP candidate, Chris Paul. They did survive, and made it all the way to the Finals.

Now this season, they are at it again. They stormed into the NBA playoffs, then watched this year’s MVP-candidate go down when Devin Booker suffered a hamstring injury in Game 2.

Midway through the third quarter, as the Pelicans were taking a 77-74 lead with yet another rebound-leading-to-fast-break-dunk, Book chased down Jaxson Hayes only to pull up lame, grabbing at his hamstring. He soon left, not to return.

Words after the game were limited — that we would get an update on Book tomorrow.

The Suns don’t know the extent of the Booker hamstring injury, but we have two recent examples to draw from:

  1. Earlier this season, Booker missed two weeks (7 games) with a hamstring injury to the other leg. The Suns went 5-2 in his absence (4 wins over non-playoff teams, 1 win over then-struggling Boston, losses to hot-shooting Golden State and LA Clippers).
  2. Last year in the Finals, Booker played through a hamstring injury suffered in Game 3 (or was it at the end of Game 2?). The Suns lost the next four games, despite Booker scoring 40+ in two of them before wearing down.

A couple of months ago, the Suns lost Booker for another four games due to COVID. They went 3-1, with wins over 3 non-playoff teams and a loss to the Bucks.

What does that tell us? That the Suns can win games without Book, but have not beaten a playoff-level team this year without him.

What does that mean now?

Well, the Pelicans are definitely a playoff-level team. Forget the 36-46 record. The Pels are 11-6 with Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum in the lineup together, including wins in 10 of the last 12 games they’ve shared the court.

They proved on Tuesday night that they can beat a Booker-less Suns team, which is what they did in the second half of the game.

Can a focused, backs-against-the-wall Suns team go to New Orleans and win? Of course.

But they have definitely been handed adversity. No Booker, probably. Three of the next four games in New Orleans. The Suns have to win at least two of those games to stay alive.

On the Bright Side, Booker wasn’t the only thing that went wrong for the Suns on Tuesday night, and all those other things can be corrected.

Transition defense

Head coach Monty Williams was blunt.

“That was probably, for us, the worst we’ve ever looked in transition since I’ve been here,” Williams said. “And for that to happen in playoff game, was a bit unsettling for everybody.”

The Pelicans had 16 fast break points, making 7 of 11 shots, and every one of those seemed like the Suns never kept up.

This is the same Suns team that was 6th best in the NBA, allowing only 11.3 points per game on fast breaks. They’d only allowed 4 in transition in Game 1.

Part of that was the Suns guards staying in to crash the boards a little longer after giving up 20 more rebounds than they got in Game 1, leaving them susceptible to run-outs. Part of it was just lack of awareness.

“I thought we handled the offensive rebounds a lot better but lost it in transition,” Williams said.

Clearly, the Suns know how to win games with good defense, ranking 3rd overall in the league this season. They can figure this out.

Three-point Shooting

Non-Book shooters made only 6 of 24 threes in Game 2, while the Pelicans made a whopping 17 of 31.

“We just didn’t shoot the ball as well as they did,” Williams said. “I just thought it was a lapse in [know your personnel], lack of intensity to get to their feet.”

The Pelicans 55% mark on threes is the best % allowed by the Suns all season and halfway through last season too.

“I thought we were hoping they would miss, instead of making them miss,” Chris Paul said.

This is a Suns team that’s been 5th best in three-point % allowed this year (34%) and allowed the 4th fewest makes per game (11.7). The Pelicans are not a good three-point shooting team, with only CJ McCollum and Trey Murphy Jr. making at or above league average this year.

The shooting will level out, especially if the Suns dial back into their 5th-ranked three point shooting defense.

Lack of energy

The Suns clearly lacked the cohesion and supreme energy that has marked this team for 2+ seasons.

“Yeah, it does,” Williams replied, when asked if he it surprised him how they lacked energy in this one. “Just because, one, we’re at home, two, all of these games are so important.”

“It shouldn’t. It shouldn’t,” Paul said, asked how the Suns could lack energy in a playoff game. “Unfortunately we can’t go back and do nothing about it now.”

Cameron Johnson said it was more about lack of execution making the players look like they had low energy, rather than actually being low. Either way, the Suns looked bad, and they all knew it.

“Too comfortable on the offensive end,” forward Cameron Johnson said of the Pelicans. “We got to make [Ingram] feel us more.”

Brandon Ingram scored 37 points on 21 shots, grabbed 11 rebounds and dished 9 assists. CJ McCollum made 6 of 10 threes and nearly had a triple double of his own. And the Pelicans collectively made 17 of 31 threes while also making 16 of 20 shots in the paint.

“It’s the defense,” Mikal Bridges said. “That’s what it comes down to.”


Next Up

The Suns need to win game three in New Orleans, to take control back in the series.

“The most important thing for us right now is game three,” Chris Paul said. “Next man up. We’ll figure it out.”

“We prepare for anything to happen,” Cameron Johnson said. “Sometimes unfortunate things happen. You just got to continue to work through it.”

“We are going to be ready,” Bridges said of Game 3. “I know everybody’s ready to step up. We went through regular season games without him. We’ll be ready for sure.”

The Suns were 18-3 without Ayton this year, 11-4 without Paul and 8-3 without Booker (not counting the end-of-season ‘rest’ losses they all sat out in the final week+). In all, the Suns survived losing 6 of their top 7 players for at least a month of the season this year.

Now, if Booker is out for Game 3 or more, this is just another test.