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It’s Going to Take More Than a Headbutt to Break the Suns

Just like Devin Booker’s nose (apparently), the Suns are showing a resiliency that’s a trademark of a champion. The hits keep coming, but as Phoenix showed again in Game 2, they’re nothing but a flesh wound.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

No team walks a gilded, strifeless path to the NBA championship; if you want to win the whole thing, you’re going to have to take some hits along the way. Those hits are often metaphorical: weathering the absence of an important player, withstanding a flurry of baskets, maintaining composure despite a tough whistle.

Sometimes, though, the hits are extremely literal. Like, for example, getting your nose split open.

Ever-present irritant and evident headbutt enthusiast Patrick Beverley sent Devin Booker to the locker room late in the third quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday. After spending the rest of the quarter getting stitched up and stuffed up, the two-time All-Star returned to the fold, with a look fondly familiar to the Phoenix faithful ...

Booker played all but one second of the fourth, fighting his way to the free throw line seven times in the final frame. The tell-tale sign of Booker’s grit, though, would come on a play where he never even touched the ball.

With the Clippers clinging to a one-point lead, the Suns had the ball on the baseline with nine-tenths of a second remaining to steal Game 2. Rather than drawing up a play to get his leading scorer a catch-and-shoot touch to win it, though, Phoenix head coach Monty Williams zagged, drawing up a quick-hitter that relied on Booker planting himself in the path of the 7-foot, 240-pound Ivica Zubac, and giving Deandre Ayton a chance to cut to the rim for a lob.

That’s worth pausing on for a minute. With the game on the line, Williams asked his 24-year-old burgeoning superstar—one of the ascendant breakout performers of this postseason—to sacrifice not only a shot at game-winning glory, but also his already-bruised body, scarcely an hour removed from getting his face rearranged. You’d understand if Booker bristled a bit at the call. He didn’t, though. He did his job, lowering the boom with a back screen, decleating an unsuspecting Zubac, and affording Ayton enough space to elevate; there’s more than one way to be legendary.

Jae Crowder did his job, too, lofting an inch-perfect inbound lob just over the corner of the backboard to a spot where only Ayton could grab it. All that remained, then, was for Ayton to do his: go up to the seventh floor, drop Zubac off at the fifth, and, as Williams reminded him during the preceding timeout, “try to dunk it.”

He dunked it.

Several Clippers immediately lobbied for an offensive goaltending call, but as ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy pointed out and crew chief Scott Foster later clarified, there’s no such thing on an inbound pass. (Suns fans, of course, learned this all the way back in 2017; Tyson Chandler remembers it well.) Ayton’s dunk counted, and after a failed Hail Mary attempt to Paul George for a last-ditch Laettner the Suns walked away with a thrilling 104-103 win and a hard-fought 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

Behold: the face of perseverance and victory.

Booker said after the game that his nose isn’t broken—just crooked. Phoenix’s priorities, however, remain perfectly straight: do whatever’s necessary to keep on pushing, to complete the journey that began in last season’s bubble, and to grab the brass ring that nobody outside of its own locker room believed might actually be attainable. According to The Ringer’s NBA Odds Machine, the Suns now have a 92 percent chance of earning their first trip to the NBA Finals in nearly 30 years, and a 60 percent chance of hoisting the Larry O’B for the first time.

It takes incredible talent to get this far, but it takes something else, too: the toughness to survive the postseason gauntlet, the resolve to take the hits that just keep coming, the serenity to retain focus and stick to the script, and an unshakable commitment to the principle that if someone falls, someone else picks them up. Game 2 proved, again, that the Suns have that. In spades.

Chris Paul—one of the greatest point guards ever and Phoenix’s best player in its second-round sweep of the Nuggets—has missed both games of this series after landing in the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. It hasn’t mattered, though, in part because the Suns have still had the best point guard in this conference finals:

Cameron Payne’s remarkable career resurrection reached a new peak on Tuesday, as the former Thunder lottery pick poured in a career-high 29 points on 12-for-24 shooting and added nine assists in 37 minutes of brilliant relief pitching in Paul’s stead. The lefty carved up L.A.’s coverages all night, using his speed to dust defenders off the bounce for one scoop layup after another. He also piloted Williams’s multi-pronged pick-and-roll sets to perfection, finishing the game without a turnover. Not bad for a guy who was out of the league and playing in China a year and a half ago.

This is how this year’s Suns roll now; they’re a case study in collective consistency, even amid individual upheaval. The Point God goes out before the biggest game of the season? His understudy will temporarily assume deity status. After exploding for a 40-point triple-double in Game 1, Booker struggles with Beverley’s physical (OK, yes, sometimes too physical) defense on his way to 5-for-16 shooting with seven turnovers? Ayton fills the void by continuing to dominate the paint on both ends, busting L.A. up to the tune of 24 points on 12-for-15 shooting with 14 rebounds while playing excellent interior defense.

Ayton said after the game that he’s “never played this hard in his life,” and it looks like it. With his activity, physicality, and athleticism, the 22-year-old is now just straight up bossing the game for stretches, like the mid-third-quarter burst that helped the Suns regain control after L.A. briefly took the lead:

Starting swingmen Crowder and Mikal Bridges scuffle their way to seven combined points on 2-for-10 shooting? No problem: Cameron Johnson will come off the bench and sprinkle in 11 points and make all five of his shots, showing up with a perfect cut, an offensive rebound, and a bailout triple when Phoenix needs them most. L.A.’s starting to gain some traction in the second unit? No sweat: The Suns will just run things through Dario Saric, letting him pick-and-pop the plodding DeMarcus Cousins to death or bury the smaller Terance Mann under the basket, depending on what sort of reserve group Ty Lue’s running out there.

Oh, Booker’s face just exploded and Payne needs a breather? No worries: E’Twaun Moore, who had played just 17 total minutes through the first two rounds, will step in with 11 perfectly cromulent minutes of backup point guard play. The Clippers just ripped off an 8-2 run in the final minute and a half to take a one-point lead into the closing seconds? All good: The Suns will just perfectly execute an extremely difficult inbound play under immense pressure on the next possession, sew up one more win, and move on to the next one.

The Clippers have to move on to the next one, too. They can take some positives from their two losses in the desert—they didn’t fold without Kawhi Leonard, they’ve actually outscored Phoenix’s starting five through two games, and they were within one possession in the final minute of both games. For all the silver linings, though, Game 2 might be a tough one to let go.

The Clips will kick themselves for dropping a game in which they limited Booker and outscored Phoenix 39-18 from 3-point range. They’ll kick themselves for missing six free throws in a one-point loss—five of them by George, including two with 8.2 seconds remaining that could’ve extended L.A.’s lead to three, and taken the possibility of a game-winning lob off the table:

They’ll kick themselves for the way they defended that final Suns possession, neither pressuring the pass nor protecting the rim, and leaving the door open just wide enough for Crowder, Booker, and Ayton to kick it off the hinges. They’ll kick themselves because they had a chance to return to Staples Center with a split and home-court advantage, and they let it slip. And while they did come back from 0-2 deficits against Dallas and Utah, doing it a third time—without Leonard, and against a Suns team that might soon welcome back Paul—could prove awfully difficult.

“With this team, if anything we’re more confident,” George, who finished with 26 points, six rebounds, and six assists, told reporters when asked about the challenge of climbing out of another 0-2 hole. “If I know this team correctly, the fight we have going into Game 3, and the fight that we have to believe that we’re going to change the series, that’s who we’ve been and who we are.”

It’s the Clippers’ turn, once again, to take the hits and keep on pushing. They’ve got their work cut out for them, because Game 2 proved that the Suns are the kind of team that tastes its own blood and decides it wants yours. When you fight guys like that, you’re in for a long night. If the Clips can’t change things up, and quickly, it could also mean they’re in for a short series.