Devin Booker's first exposure to playoff basketball continues to be a revelation.
Not necessarily for him, but for the rest of the NBA.
Booker had 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists for his first career triple-double and the Phoenix Suns overcame Chris Paul's absence to beat the Los Angeles Clippers 120-114 on Sunday in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
“I don't understand why everyone's acting surprised at this point,” Suns forward Jae Crowder said about Booker's big day. “This is his first time on this stage but he's capable. He's more than capable. He're more than ready. He prepares like no other.”
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Paul sat out because of COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Clippers star Kawhi Leonard missed his third straight game because of a sprained right knee.
Tied at 93 to start the fourth, the Suns went on a 12-2 run and pulled ahead 105-95 on Cam Johnson's dunk with 8:08 remaining. The Clippers wouldn't go away, though, cutting a 10-point deficit in the final two minutes to 116-114 when Terance Mann hit a 3-pointer with 22 seconds left.
But that's where the rally stopped for Los Angeles.
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“I have no excuse,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “I thought we played hard and competed. A little credit — they were making shots and we didn’t. But I loved our fight. I loved what I saw.”
Booker scored on a dunk on the next possession to seal Phoenix's eighth straight victory, getting a free lane to the basket on the blown defensive coverage. The sixth-year guard was a surprising omission from the All-NBA teams released a few days ago but he certainly looked the part on Sunday.
He wasn't worried about where this game ranks among his best performances.
“I'll let you guys do the rankings,” Booker said. “I'm just going out there to win every game possible. I've been saying this since the start of the playoffs —-every next game is the biggest game.”
Game 2 is on Tuesday night in Phoenix.
Booker continues to cement his superstar status and was productive and efficient in one of the best games of his career. He shot 15 of 29 from the field, carving apart a defense that had to play just 36 hours after closing out the Utah Jazz on Friday night.
The third quarter featured a stellar scoring duel between Booker and L.A.'s Paul George, who finished with 34 points. Booker scored 18 points in the quarter, and George had 15, including a 3-pointer that tied it at 93 heading to the fourth.
The Suns led 76-68 midway through the third but George scored eight straight points — including six points on two long 3-pointers — to tie it up. It was the start of a 16-2 run that helped Los Angeles take an 84-78 lead.
Booker and the Suns responded quickly. Booker scored 12 points — mostly on mid-range jumpers — in the final 3:09 of the third to get Phoenix back on track. Then Phoenix rolled through the fourth quarter.
“We got to figure out how to counter, which we will, figure out another game plan,” George said. “I think this was a good feel-out game to see adjustments. We have been great at adjusting."
Deandre Ayton had 20 points and nine rebounds for the Suns. Cameron Payne started for Paul and had 11 points and nine assists.
Reggie Jackson added 24 points for the Clippers.
PAUL ON FACETIME
Paul celebrated with the Suns after the Game 1 win —- on FaceTime.
Crowder said the 36-year-old Paul held up one finger on the screen to signify it's just one game, but he enjoyed the moment.
“He's eager to get back,” Crowder said.
The Clippers got a boost from veteran big man Demarcus Cousins in the second quarter. He came into the game and almost immediately threw down a monster dunk over Dario Saric. He scored 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting in his first five minutes on the court.
The talented but oft-injured Cousins has only played in two playoff games this season. The four-time All-Star averaged 7.8 points in 16 regular season games with the Clippers this season.
Suns general manager James Jones was named the NBA's Executive of the Year on Sunday. Team President Robert Sarver surprised Jones with the announcement in a short ceremony at midcourt a few minutes before tipoff.
Jones came to the team two years ago and has helped build the Valley's best team in 11 seasons. His big move was adding Paul during the offeseason but he's also made other key moves, like adding Payne, Torrey Craig and drafting Cameron Johnson.
He got a big ovation from the sellout crowd of 16,583.
The low-key Jones was a man of few words when handed the microphone by Sarver, thanking the crowd and then adding one sentence.
“All I can say is, ”Go Suns, let's win,'" Jones said.
Clippers: Leonard and forward Serge Ibaka (back surgery) didn't play. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said on Saturday that Leonard was getting treatment on his knee in Los Angeles and wasn't sure about his availability in Game 2.
Suns: Paul and forward Abdel Nader (right knee arthroscopy) didn't play. Suns coach Monty Williams said Paul's situation is “day-to-day.”