Playing without backcourt mate and team leader Chris Paul, who is away from the team indefinitely due to COVID-19 protocols, Booker didn’t miss a beat. He shot 15 of 29 from the field, and seven of seven from the line, and punished the Clippers particularly from the mid-range, where they just couldn’t find an answer for him.
And that performance was all the more necessary thanks to another incredible performance by Clippers superstar Paul George. He started hot with 12 first-quarter points — including two long threes — for his best opening-frame performance of the playoffs, and did his best to help keep his team in the game until the dying minutes.
Once again in the absence of Kawhi Leonard, out with a right knee injury, the Clippers started the game playing without a traditional big. But the Suns’ DeAndre Ayton managed to exploit the small-ball lineup in ways Rudy Gobert couldn’t. Alternately rolling hard to the rim and finding soft spots in the L.A. defence, Ayton scored eight of his 14 first-half points in the final six minutes of the second quarter to help the Suns get up by three at the break.
A back-and-forth third led to a tie score at the start of the fourth before the Suns quickly went on a 10–2 run with George on the bench. But the Clippers refused to go away, scoring eight unanswered under two minutes to get within two with 22 seconds left.
Of course, Booker was not to be outdone, adding several exclamation points down the stretch. First, he got his tenth assist on a give-and-go for an alley-oop dunk by Mikal Bridges that put the Suns up nine late in the fourth. Then he ended the aforementioned eight-point Clippers’ run with a dunk. Then he held his ground in the paint to grab the rebound on the Clippers’ last offensive possession before tying a bow on the six-point victory with two free throws.
All told, he finished with 11 assists and 13 boards on top of his 40 points in 44 minutes for yet another coming-out party of a game in a playoffs already stocked with them.
Here are three takeaways from Game 1:
Home, Home on the Mid-Range
You thought we were done talking about Booker? You thought wrong.
Two of the Suns’ all-star’s 40 points came at the rim with 20 seconds remaining, and nine came from three-point land. But the vast bulk of the damage came in the area in-between. For proof, check out his shot chart from the game:
Count ’em. That’s 11 mid-range jumpers.
The bulk of this damage was done during the pivotal third quarter, when the Clippers were busy pouring in 39 points of their own. But Booker refused to let them pull away.
At one point he scored 16 straight Suns points, a run that included consecutive makes from 11, 15, 16, 19 and 17 feet out (with a 28-foot three-pointer sandwiched in the middle). And it goes without saying that if he’s going to hit those with that kind regularity, the Clippers are going to have a hard time defending this team, with or without Paul making things all that much harder on them.
For their part, the Clippers have several long-armed defenders who ostensibly have as good a shot slowing Booker down, and spent a good portion of the game doubling him at the three-point line. And he did a great job of passing out, and his teammates continually made extra passes to find open men before the Clips could rotate back to them.
Speaking of which…
The Clippers showed how well they can play without their star in closing out the Jazz, but the Suns proved Sunday they may be even better set up for that particularly difficult feat.
Booker and Ayton — who finished with 20 points of his own — carried the load, all five starters scored in double figures and chipped in at various points. Cameron Payne, in particular, did a fantastic job filling in for Paul, charging in for a couple of off-hand layups and finding Ayton for his buckets in the paint.
Meanwhile, Cameron Johnson came off the bench with 12 points in 24 minutes, including a huge second quarter in which he scored seven points in quick succession to match what DeMarcus Cousins — a bright spot for the Clippers who finished with 11 points — was doing on the other end.
All told, the Suns shot 55.1 per cent from the field to the Clippers’ 45.5 per cent.
‘Playoff P’ Lives
We mentioned it above, but it bears elaborating that George’s performance — both in Game 1, and generally since Leonard dropped out of the lineup ahead of Game 5 of the Jazz series — has been incredible.
Just when it seemed like Phoenix was pulling away in the middle of the third, opening up an eight-point lead, George hit threes on three consecutive possessions to even the score at 76. He finished with 34 points — the fourth game in his past five that he’s topped the 30-point mark.
That said, he scored just one point in the final frame Sunday, and that was on a technical free throw after Payne slapped Batum’s hand out of frustration after a hard foul. George was zero from five from the field in the fourth, and was nowhere near the presence he’d been in the third.
Which makes complete sense since the Clippers had just one off day after ousting Utah, a game in which George played 46 minutes.
The Clippers got offensive help from Cousins and Reggie Jackson, who finished with 24, and a late-game surge from Rajon Rondo. But starters Marcus Morris and Nicolas Batum combined for 11 points on 16 shots, and Friday night hero Terance Mann finished with nine. He was quiet aside from the huge late three that brought the Suns lead back to two.
To beat this Suns team without Kawhi, the Clippers will need a balanced attack with contributions from all over the lineup. And they didn’t have enough of one Sunday.