The Phoenix Suns had won their way back into their first-round playoff series, surviving a second consecutive bad night from their star scorer against the Los Angeles Lakers.
The NBA’s best defense had smothered Devin Booker, forcing him into missing two-thirds of his shots in Games 3 and 4. With a pivotal Game 5 on the horizon, Suns coach Monty Williams told Booker the same two words he always tells his guys when adversity hits.
“Go hoop,” Williams said.
But he said more, pushing Booker to force his way out of the slump, to find the first open window in Game 5 and shoot on his first touch. Eighty-eight seconds in, Booker drilled that first shot — a three — on his way to 18 first-quarter points.
But here they are again, Booker repeatedly missing shots and the Suns desperately needing him to just “go hoop.”
In the seven games that followed his mini-slump against the Lakers, Booker averaged more than 31 points on 53% shooting, easily bouncing the Lakers out of the postseason before leading a sweep of the Denver Nuggets.
The Clippers were walking that same path — Booker scored 40 in a Game 1 triple-double — before they made an adjustment and sent Patrick Beverley to go disrupt things.
Like so many of coach Tyronn Lue’s adjustments, this one has worked — the Clippers forcing Booker into consecutive rough shooting nights, the team just 0.9 seconds away from a 2-1 lead over Phoenix after handily beating them 106-92 Thursday night at Staples Center.
In Game 2, the Suns barely survived when he scored 20. In Game 3, he had only 15 points on 21 shot attempts.
Booker, wearing a protective mask after an accidental head-butt from Beverley in Game 2, swore the accessory wasn’t a factor. A procedure to reset the nose on Wednesday was the bad part, and after some advice from NBA mask-master Richard Hamilton, he was good to go.
“It’s fine, honestly,” he said. “I honestly don’t really see it or it doesn’t affect me.”
The same can’t be said about Beverley, whom Booker called “ultra-aggressive” in how he’s hounded him these last two games.
“He’s denying, limiting touches. He has one objective out there, and we understand that,” Booker said. “So I feel like other things should open up, and we have to look at the film and see what’s open and see what we can get.”
While dump-ins and lobs to center Deandre Ayton are great, corner three-pointers for Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson are plusses and, eventually, Chris Paul mid-range jumpers will look like great offense, the playoffs often come down to great players making great individual plays.
That’s where Booker’s been as good as anyone this postseason.
Yet the Clippers have stymied it. How? They’re not totally saying.
“That sounds like game-plan talk,” George said when asked. “Next question.”
Williams talked about how the Clippers have been physical with Booker, using a variety of looks and switches. Some of that forced the Suns to slow down their ball movement. Then there is Beverley’s ability to challenge shots from all angles.
All of that will get sorted out in film, but Williams’ ultimate message to Booker will be the same.
He’ll listen. He also thinks he’s ready to handle it.
“I always hear people out, especially people I respect like Monty,” Booker said. “I’ve been playing this game for a long time. I’ve gone through every type of shooting slump that you can think of. The best advice that my dad gave me when I moved with him when I was 13 years old is have a short memory in this game. On to the next play and on to the next game and on to the next possession.
“So the quicker you can have a short memory and just be confident in yourself and the work you’ve put in — I’ve pretty much seen every type of situation on the court, so I believe in my work. Next game’s going to be better.”
They almost always have been.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.