Without Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Suns youngsters rose to the occasion

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns, Terance Mann, LA Clippers. (Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns, Terance Mann, LA Clippers. (Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports) /

Without Chris Paul in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, Devin Booker and the young Phoenix Suns did what they’ve been doing all season long.

Heading into the 2021 Western Conference Finals, it was fair to question which team would have the edge. The LA Clippers would be missing Kawhi Leonard for at least the first two games, while the Phoenix Suns would be without Chris Paul for at least Game 1 after he tested positive for COVID-19.

Yet the advantage of those absences seemed to slightly lean in LA’s favor. Leonard is the better individual player, but the Clippers managed to win their last two games of their last series against the top-seeded Utah Jazz without the Klaw; the Suns, meanwhile, had only played without CP3 for two games all season. Even when he suffered a shoulder stinger in the first round, Paul played through it.

Not having his poise, mid-range prolificacy, leadership and communication on the court would be relatively newfound territory for a young Phoenix team, and it was coming on the biggest stage yet.

Fortunately, Devin Booker and the rest of the Suns youngsters reminded people of what they’ve been doing this all season.

“I just thought he managed the game well knowing that Chris wasn’t on the floor,” head coach Monty Williams said of Booker after Game 1. “And I just saw his will — Devin Booker’s will — tonight.”

While it was easy to hold up Paul as Phoenix’s MVP candidate because of his influence on this group and how easy he’s made the game for Booker, those arguments typically ignored the growth of Booker, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton and Cameron Johnson, the team’s under-25 core of the future. Lazy MVP cases for CP3 revolved around the most basic math: Phoenix only won 34 games last year but suddenly launched to 51 wins in a 72-game season with the addition of Paul.

Adding one of the greatest floor generals in NBA history obviously served as the catalyst, but this is the same young core that ripped off that 8-0 bubble run before CP3 arrived. Paul himself has said that the culture was already in place before he showed up, and that he wanted to go to Phoenix because he wanted to play with Devin Booker.

In Sunday’s Game 1 against the Clippers, without their floor general, Devin Booker and the Suns reminded everyone what they’re made of in a 120-114 win.

Devin Booker and the Suns’ youngsters were superb in Game 1

Finishing with a game-high 40 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists and only 2 turnovers on 15-of-29 shooting, Booker picked one hell of a time to record the first triple-double of his career. It was the 12th 40-point triple-double in NBA playoff history, the second in franchise history (joining Charles Barkley) and he became the fourth player with a 40-point triple-double in conference finals history.

In the first round, Book finally broke his longstanding record of six made 3-pointers in a game with eight in a 47-point closeout game against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. And while CP3’s dominance was the story in the second-round sweep of the Denver Nuggets, Booker has been a consistent killer in his first trip to the postseason … like in Game 1, when he scored or assisted on 43 of the Suns’ final 50 points.

“That’s who Book is, he’s been waiting for this moment, these moments, for a long, long time,” Williams said. “But at the same time, he would be the first to tell you it’s one game, and we have a lot of work to do against a really good team.”

Through 11 playoff games, the 24-year-old superstar is averaging 29.0 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game on .491/.382/.924 shooting splits. He’s logging a ridiculous 40.3 minutes per game, with a plus-8.5 point differential, and in a critical Game 1 at home without the team’s third/fourth-quarter king, Book reminded the world he’s more than capable of taking over with a 40-point triple-double in the biggest game of his career.

“I mean, I expect it,” Jae Crowder said of Book’s performance. “I know what type of player he is. I don’t understand how everyone is acting surprised at this point. Obviously this is his first time at this level, at this stage, but he’s capable. He’s more than capable, he’s more than ready. He’s prepared like no other, he’s in the gym, he’s preparing, he’s watching film. So it’s no coincidence that he’s having big games for us.”

But as much as the Suns’ brightest star stole the spotlight, he wasn’t the only youngster to step up. Deandre Ayton, who’s been a beast in his first postseason despite facing the likes of Anthony Davis and MVP Nikola Jokic, was once again a force in a different type of matchup — this time against the Clippers’ small-ball lineups.

But unlike Rudy Gobert, Ayton wasn’t played off the floor, sticking with smaller players on the perimeter and cleaning up around the rim. He finished Game 1 with 20 points and 9 rebounds, going a tidy 10-for-14 from the floor — somehow below his absurd playoff average of 71.6 percent.

Cameron Johnson came out firing with 10 points in the first half, and while Mikal Bridges was quiet in those first two quarters, he followed up Booker and Ayton with 14 points on 6-of-11 shooting. That included 7 straight point late in the fourth quarter that nearly sealed the deal for Phoenix.

“[The triple-double] is very special, but the win feels better,” Booker said before rerouting praise to his supporting cast. “Part of the triple-double is assists, and that’s my teammates making them pay for running and doubling and seeing different types of defenses. The rebounds come from DA boxing out.”

It wasn’t pretty throughout; after Bridges’ back-to-back dunks and made 3-pointer gave the Suns a 10-point lead with two minutes to play, the Clippers fired back with an immediate 8-0 run to pull within 2 with 22 seconds left. It wasn’t lost on Jae Crowder or anyone else how much the Suns felt Paul’s absence over those last couple of minutes.

“We definitely missed him, I think, the last three minutes of that game,” Crowder said. “That’s when we felt like, ‘Where the hell is Chris at?’ That’s the point where he’s that guy, he’s that guy to make that play for everybody, he’s that guy to put us in position, and especially with a lead or down, we depend on him to make those plays.”

But in a game without Paul and Leonard, and with playoff experience heavily favoring their opponent yet again, the Suns emerged with a big Game 1 win. It’s only one game, against a team that likes to come back from 2-0 deficits, but even as the lessons they’ve learned all season under CP3’s tutelage shone through, the way those youngsters stepped up on the big stage without him shouldn’t be lost on anyone.

Especially when their best player remains focused on the task at hand after one of the best performances of his career.

“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 it since the start of the playoffs, every next game is our biggest game.”

Next. 5 reasons the Phoenix Suns can win it all. dark