Up until halfway through the second quarter, the Phoenix Suns offense looked stuck in the mud. And then it didn’t. They shot 67% in the middle quarters combined, and went on to beat the Los Angeles Clippers to tie up the the first round playoff series 1-1.
Devin Booker had 38 absolutely huge points and added 9 assists. Kevin Durant had 25, and Chris Paul had a second half that reminded everyone how he was All-NBA just a year ago. He finished with 16 points, 8 assists and 4 rebounds. Deandre Ayton had 14 points and 13 big rebounds. Torrey Craig added 5 threes to help the Suns take the lead in the third quarter and never give it back.
The Clippers were led by Kawhi Leonard’s 31 points, and Russell Westbrook’s throwback 28 points on 9 of 16 shooting. The rest of the Clippers shot poorly, though.
The series now moves to LA for Games 3 and 4. But at least the Suns finally look like a team that’s got some incredible offensive players, even if they still have major faults (free throws, rebounding).
Suns win, 123-109.
The Suns started the game in thrilling fashion, winning the opening tip and getting a Durant middy over Russell Westbrook, playing such good defense against the Clippers they nearly had a shot-clock violation on a wildly bad shot, then a three by Torrey Craig.
But then Russell Westbrook started making his impact, draining a three, getting a behind-the-back block on Durant and getting the Clips into a pair of threes by Eric Gordon. Quickly a 5-0 lead turned into a 11-7 deficit.
The teams slogged to a 15-15 tie late in the first quarter, and then the refs started making it more about them. First, a loose ball foul on Torrey Craig got Craig into a technical foul call, then from there the Suns started getting mad at everything.
Oh, and the bench was in. Okogie, Biyombo and Shamet, to play with Booker and Durant, and an offense that was already sputtering began to sputter even more. The Clippers defensive schemes on the Suns starters were definitely affecting just about everything the Suns tried to do.
In a growing problem in this series, the Clippers were already doubling up the Suns three point attempts, 9-5, and were getting killed in makes, 4-1. The only player who’d made a three for the Suns with 2:35 left in the first quarter was Torrey Craig. Booker and Paul were a combined 0-3.
Kevin Durant was having a tough time in this one, and got picked by Kawhi Leonard for a steal-and-slam. Then Leonard a minute later made a three in the face of Landry Shamet — the Suns accepted the switch to get Shamet onto him way too easily.
Leonard is just dominating the game through one quarter, with 8 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds. Helps that the Suns are not double-teaming and trapping him, but rather trusting a guy on an island way too often.
Clippers lead, 29-24, after one quarter. They already have 6 offensive rebounds and 6 three-point makes. That can’t keep happening to the Suns if they’re going to recover.
Early in the second quarter, Russell Westbrook made his second three of the game and continues to be the second-best player in this series. He’s up to 10 points now and has made a ton of winning plays that don’t even show in the stat line.
The Clippers went up 42-32 when Josh Okogie missed a driving layup that turned into a runout for Bones Hyland for a driving layup of his own. Suns coach Monty Williams is already 10 deep in the rotation, and they’re all once again net negatives.
Russell Westbrook made a three point play, then Kawhi Leonard made a three a couple minutes later and the Suns were down 12 and it looked like they had no answers.
And then they did. The Clippers went into a lull, and Booker’s three pointer with less than a second left in the half tied up the game, 59-59, at the half.
The Suns went on a roll coming out of halftime, and took a 73-63 lead on a Durant jumper, but then the Clippers forced the action again and got a pair of quick Ayton fouls on the defensive end to get him to four for the game and force a sub. That was the 8-minute mark of the 3rd.
Eric Gordon made a pair of deep threes to keep the Clippers in the game, but the Suns had it absolutely going on offense for the first time all series. The Clippers wouldn’t go away though, and the Suns couldn’t sustain the offense if they didn’t make the first shot every time.
The Clippers knew their game plan — get every board on both ends, play physical, and let the calls go the way they were going to go. The refs can’t call everything, right?
The Suns were shooting 62% late in the third quarter, but only had a 5-point lead (82-77) because the Clippers had +10 free throws and +12 three point attempts (+2 makes), not to mention their +6 on shot attempts thanks to +6 offensive rebounds. And it’s not even the end of the third quarter.
This time, Monty Williams did NOT put in four bench guys at the same time at the end of the third quarter. They only put in three with Booker and Durant, with Durant as the de facto five, but still Kawhi Leonard did his end-of-quarter stuff and the Suns one-time 10-point lead was down to five, 92-87.
Devin Booker in the third quarter alone had 18 points (31 total), 4 assists, 7-of-8 FG, 2-of-2 3PT, 2-of-2 FT. Wow. Even wower? Torrey Craig has made 5 threes in 7 attempts. Every single one of them needed badly.
Chris Paul decided to look a little like his old self to start the fourth quarter on a 6-0 run, forcing Kawhi back onto the court with the Suns lead now 11.
With 9:21 left in the game, the first Suns player to draw free throws besides Booker and Durant was Josh Okogie. The crowd went wild.
A minute later, they began chanting WEST-BRICK in unison after Russell Westbrook missed a layup. Wrong guy to chant against — he got an and-one offensive rebound on the next possession on pure effort alone.
Watching the Suns offense from the second quarter on, where they shot 66%+, was a study in — oh yeah, that’s how you employ Durant and Booker. Make them double one, swing swing, get it to the other and... easy money.
The Suns had a 12-point lead with 6 minutes to play, but that’s a LOT of time left when the other side has Kawhi Leonard and absolutely resurgent Russell Westbrook in there, plus Eric Gordon for deep threes. You just can’t let them back into this.
The Clippers cut it to 7 with 4:45 left on a transition drive by Norman Powell — man, Westbrook has been fantastic getting out fast on a rebound this series! — and, despite the last play generating a wide open Kevin Durant three, the Suns had to call a timeout to make sure they kept it together.
Ayton is finally back in the game to give the Suns some rim protection. The Clippers main offense has been drives to the rim, especially when the Suns go small with Durant in the middle.
Possibly the loudest cheers of the night were on Ivica Zubac’s pair of missed free throws — FREE CHICKEN! — and subsequent runout to give the Suns the 9 point lead, 113-104, with under 4 to go.