It’s unfortunate NBA fans were robbed of what was bound to be a
special moment on Tuesday night in Phoenix. Devin Booker was going
supernova, putting up 31 points in the first half and taking the
breath out of every spectator as they watched it unfold. The Suns'
superstar seized the moment and pounced on the New Orleans Pelicans
relentlessly, potentially on his way to dropping a postseason
As such, Phoenix was also well on its way to taking a commanding
2-0 series lead before the series shifted back to New Orleans, but
Booker exited midway through the third quarter due to right
hamstring tightness. Booker suffered the injury chasing Jaxson
Hayes back in transition, which was a bugaboo for the Suns
throughout their 125-114 loss in Game 2.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Booker has a mild
hamstring strain, which is likely to keep him out of the next two
games in New Orleans. The positive note, though, is that the strain
is believed to be mild, and Booker hasn’t been ruled out for the
remainder of Phoenix’s opening-round series.
“It is what it is. It’s part of the game, you know what I mean,"
Chris Paul said postgame of losing Booker. "We got guys that are
more than capable of stepping up. I mean, Book was killing it.
He was having a big time game, but it is what it is.”
Booker erupted in the first half against the Pelicans, and he
continued to stay hot in all portions of the game. Kicking it all
off with 16 first-quarter points, Booker followed his opening frame
with 15 in the second quarter. Hitting 7 threes along the way, the
Suns' 25-year-old star was doing whatever he wanted against New
“He was hot. He was scoring the ball well and playing well all
across the board, so it is what it is," Cameron Johnson said. "We
have to continue to fight and continue to play our style of
Booker returning for Game 5 in six days could very much be in
play, especially if it’s indeed mild and there’s no setbacks. If
the Suns are able to split against the Pelicans at the Smoothie
King Center, their job will be done in snatching back home-court
advantage without Booker.
As New Orleans showed in Game 2, though, it is a group ready to
make this tough on the betting favorites to win this year’s NBA
Pelicans head coach Willie Green, a former Suns assistant, put
together an excellent game plan to stymie Deandre Ayton and Chris
Paul from having major impacts. Green has implemented Suns-esque
DNA into the Pelicans, empowering his players to the highest belief
and the same never-give-up mindset.
When Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum catch fire simultaneously,
it's tough for any team to handle. However, the Suns’ lack of
defensive discipline on the perimeter was apparent, as the Pelicans
shot a blistering 17 of 31 on threes. Ingram put on a scoring
clinic with 37 points — most of which came against Defensive Player
of the Year runner-up Mikal Bridges — reminding everyone just how
special of a talent he is.
As our own Nekias Duncan wrote, Phoenix’s adjustments without
Booker will revolve around its patented ball
movement in head coach Monty Williams’ “0.5 offense” scheme.
More of the burden will be on Paul’s shoulders, and the Pelicans
have forced Phoenix into having Jae Crowder or Johnson bring the
ball up the court to avoid Herb Jones' full-court pressure on
Earlier this season, Booker missed time due to a left hamstring
strain he suffered in the Suns' fun back-and-forth battle with the
Golden State Warriors on Nov. 30. In seven games without Booker,
Phoenix went 5-2 with three wins by double-digits. When canvassing
through the numbers for this two-week stretch, Cameron Payne and
Landry Shamet saw boosts in their roles. We already saw this play
out in the second half of Game 2, which included Shamet playing
most of the fourth quarter in Booker’s absence.
Zooming out on Booker’s hamstring issue, what is worrisome is
that this is now becoming a recurring soft tissue issue. Since
2018, Booker has missed time on the injury report with "Hamstring"
listed six times, and he also let it be known he played in the
Finals last season with a similar problem as well.
Hamstring woes have been a constant for Booker throughout his
career, but this popping up now is such unfortunate timing. Luckily
it’s only the first round against a 36-win Pelicans team, but
there’s no doubt about it that this series could be a tough road
ahead for Phoenix. With the way New Orleans is rallying as an
inspired group, a six-game series feels like the most realistic
scenario with Booker’s presumed return next week.
The 2021-22 Suns are one of the most dominant NBA teams in the
last few years. On their way to securing a franchise record 64-win
campaign, they fought though multiple injuries where important
players missed extended time (Paul, Ayton, Johnson and Booker all
included). That same next-man-up mentality was what Williams
alluded to postgame after a stunning loss for the Suns, but now,
the momentum of this series has temporarily shifted.
As the series heads back to the Bayou, tough sledding is ahead
for the Suns without Booker in what should be an electric playoff
Expect to see Phoenix trot out a new starting lineup where
Johnson is inserted for Booker, making it: Paul, Bridges, Johnson,
Crowder, Ayton. During the regular season, this five-man lineup
combination only logged 12 games and 40 total minutes together. In
that short sample size, though, it was outscoring opponents by 35.6
points per 100 possessions (123.5 Offensive Rating, 88.0 Defensive
Phoenix dodged a serious long-term bullet with the initial
diagnosis on Booker’s aggravated hamstring, but a worst-case
scenario occurred for the team in Game 3. The Suns lost their star
player, and that has handed over momentum to an underdog on a
silver platter, now making what was believed to be a quick series a
much more treacherous path.
Although it will only sideline him around a week, this series
will take a few turns before his eventual return. If the Pelicans
stay hot behind the arc, and continue to abuse Phoenix in the
rebounding department, who knows how this looks when Game 5 tips
off next Tuesday.
Urgency is in the air in Phoenix, a rare feeling that has to be
punctuated by taking back the series on the road without its best
“We going to be ready, man," Bridges said. "That’s our brother,
so obviously hoping everything goes right, but I know everybody is
ready to step up, so we’ll be ready. We went through regular season
games without him and (Chris Paul) and (Deandre Ayton), so we’ll be
ready for sure.”
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