LOS ANGELES (AP) — With Kevin Durant drawing defenders, Devin Booker found his way to the basket again and again.
Booker scored 45 points, Durant added 28 and the Phoenix Suns beat the Kawhi Leonard-less Los Angeles Clippers 129-124 on Thursday night to take a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference playoff series.
“He set the tone, got to the rim, making plays for others, just controlling the whole game,” Durant said of Booker. “We’re going to need him to do that going forward.”
Leonard sat out because of a sprained right knee, the same injury that has sidelined fellow star Paul George since March 21. Leonard was hurt in Game 1, and played through it in Game 2, but afterward his condition didn’t improve.
“Those are those trick games, where you think somebody is missing one of their top players and you let off the gas a little bit,” Booker said. “They played their (rear ends) off tonight. The whole team was prepared for that so we didn’t take a step back.”
Game 4 is Saturday in Los Angeles.
Booker shot 18 for 29 and had seven rebounds, three steals and two blocks while playing a game-high 44 minutes. He scored 38 points in Game 2.
“If it was up to me, I wouldn’t have been out those 12 minutes. My body feels good,” Booker said. “I dedicate my whole entire life to this sport and this game. When you have it going like that on the big stage, there’s nothing else you can ask for.”
With Leonard watching from the bench, the Clippers kept it close through the first half, when neither team led by more than six.
The Clippers got within three on two free throws by Westbrook with 1:44 remaining. After a 6-0 run by the Suns, Powell hit a 3-pointer, got fouled and made the free throw to pull the Clippers to 125-120.
Despite the heroics of former UCLA stars Powell and Westbrook, the Clippers sorely missed Leonard’s offense. He had 38 points in a Game 1 win at Phoenix and 31 in a loss in Game 2.
The Suns pulled away in the third behind Booker. He scored eight points in a 17-8 run to open the period and give Phoenix its first double-digit lead of the game, 71-59.
Booker credited Durant on the court for his ability to get to the basket.
“A lot of the buckets I scored, I went to him right after and said, ‘You opened that up for me,’” he said. “I expect the Clippers to make adjustments and it’ll be his turn to play.”
Suns coach Monty Williams said, “I feel bad for Kev sometimes because he’s an expensive decoy out there. He’s standing at the 28-foot hash and the defender is right in his face and that gives Book a number of opportunities to attack the basket.”
Westbrook scored seven in a row to cut the Clippers’ deficit to 71-66. The Suns answered with eight straight, capped by Durant’s vicious one-handed slam, to lead 79-66. They were ahead by seven going into the fourth.
Without Leonard, the Clippers counted on Westbrook and he made his presence known from the opening tip, keying a 6-0 run to start the game.
The Suns answered with 12 straight points before the Clippers answered with a 14-2 spurt that gave them a 20-14 lead.
The Clippers led by one when Durant, Chris Paul and Booker hit consecutive 3-pointers to go up by eight in the second, Phoenix’s largest lead of the half.
Powell ran off eight straight points to send the Clippers into halftime trailing 54-51.
Suns: Booker had his fifth career 40-plus-point postseason game. ... Paul finished with 11 points and seven assists.
Clippers: Their reserves outscored the Suns’ bench, 37-18, with Bones Hyland scoring 20 points. ... Fell to 3-10 this season without Leonard and George in the lineup. ... Nicolas Batum was the only starter who didn’t score.
Craig scored 15 points for the Suns, while hitting four 3-pointers. He’s 10 of 16 from long-range in the series.
“That’s three games in a row that he’s doing it,” Booker said. “I’m encouraging him to do it.”