Blood ran down the nose of Devin Booker. More pooled in the fabric of Patrick Beverley’s jersey.
The guards’ head-to-head collision had opened not only wounds but also opportunity for the Clippers, who badly needed one trailing by seven with 14 minutes remaining in Tuesday’s second game of these Western Conference finals. And they received it as the Suns’ most talented scorer left the court for medical treatment in his locker room, his return unclear.
Three minutes later Booker emerged from underneath Phoenix Suns Arena with two stitches, stuffing in his right nostril and a standing ovation. And when Beverley returned with a headband covering the spot on his forehead he’d covered in gauze, the two resumed the one-on-one confrontation that defined so much of this 104-103 Suns victory to claim a 2-0 series lead.
In his first start since Game 2 of the first round, Beverley pestered Booker over screens and through the paint during their 28 overlapping minutes, which the Clippers won by one point. It turned what Phoenix had hoped to be an encore to Booker’s victorious Game-1, triple-double masterpiece into a war of attrition. It was Beverley who threw his head back with 66 seconds remaining, selling an offensive foul on Booker to give the Clippers the ball and a chance to tie while trailing 100-97, a possession they used to trim their deficit to just one.
After Paul George and Booker traded baskets and the lead on three consecutive possessions, it was again Beverley poking Booker’s dribble out of bounds in front of Phoenix’s bench and frantically called for a video review — a call overturned to become Clippers’ ball with them leading by one, just 9 seconds away from evening the series.
But George missed two free throws with 7.8 seconds left. The All-Star, nearly unflappable since Kawhi Leonard’s injury four games ago, shook his head throughout the ensuing timeout
Given the ball back with eight-tenths of a second left after a missed three-pointer by Mikal Bridges, Suns coach Monty Williams drew up a lob at the rim.
“I was praying,” Williams said.
Jae Crowder lofted a pinpoint pass not to Booker, shadowed by Beverley, but to 7-foot Deandre Ayton, who skied above the rim to flush a dunk over center Ivica Zubac and launch 16,645 out of their seats, creating a wall of sound not heard in this building since 2010, their last conference-finals appearance.
A lengthy video review confirmed the basket, because an offensive player can touch the ball in the cylinder during an out-of-bounds throw-in, per league rules, and seven-tenths of a second was put back on the clock.
Nicolas Batum heaved a pass beyond midcourt to George, who did not turn to shoot in time before the final buzzer, ending a chaotic, unforgettable game — whose review- and foul-filled final two minutes of play lasted more than 32 minutes — with the Suns putting the Clippers in an 2-0 hole for the third consecutive round.
“I played in a lot of games in the league and this one goes up there,” Beverley said. “This is a hard one to swallow because you look at this game, we got this game won, you know?”
Phoenix left not unscathed but still unbeaten in its last nine games.
“We understand that we’ve been in this position before” and won, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said, “even though we hate it.”
Ayton finished with 24 points, 14 rebounds and the final exclamation mark. But it was the career-high 29 points by Cameron Payne, who has filled Chris Paul’s starting role while the All-Star remains in the NBA’s COVID protocols, and the Clippers’ stagnating offense that did them in, Lue said.
Booker scored 20 points but made only five of 16 shots and committed seven turnovers, with Beverley playing “unbelievable,” Lue felt. Phoenix’s doctors told Booker during his retreat to the locker room that his nose “wasn’t broken, just a little crooked,” he said.
“Think Pat did a great job trying to disrupt him early, kept him bottled up for most the night,” said guard Reggie Jackson, who scored 19 points. “I like that matchup. Great player and you got a great defender, a dog who’s ready to go out there and compete.”
George scored 26 points but on 23 shots. After making 89.2% of his playoff free throws entering Tuesday, he missed five of 10. All season he had missed both free throws on a trip to the line only one time, according to Elias Sports.
“We call T. Lue ‘Bill Belichick’ because of all the adjustments he makes,” Beverley said. “He’s definitely going to find a way. We’re gonna find a way also.”
Opportunities to be rattled surfaced early. Forward Marcus Morris missed six of his first seven shots and finished with seven points while playing on a sore left knee. George missed his first five shots and after he chased his lost dribble to the floor midway through the first quarter, Crowder placed his feet on either side of George’s waist and glared at him from above.
It earned Crowder and Morris technical fouls, after Morris ran in with a protective shove.
It was a return to the antagonism that followed these teams throughout the season. Neither George nor Booker, on opposite side of a heated argument in January, dapped knuckles before tipoff.
But even as an all-reserves Clippers lineup mustered only one point in three minutes to start the second quarter, Phoenix was little better. Hampered by two early fouls and unable to pick apart the Clippers’ “drop” pick-and-roll coverage as he had in Game 1, Booker scored only nine points, committed five turnovers and the Suns led by only one at halftime despite the Clippers’ five-for-15 three-point shooting.
When Booker touched the ball, Beverley often was only inches away. Their collision 10 minutes later brought them, and eventually their teams, even closer in a game in which separation did not arrive until the final second.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.