PHOENIX — This city has waited 16 years to close a playoff series at home, and the Suns finally delivered with a 136-130 win against the LA Clippers, carried by a magical third quarter from Devin Booker that left the Footprint Center abuzz in awe.
Star forward Kevin Durant described the performance as “spiritual.”
But no matter what you prefer to call it, there’s no denying the three-time NBA All-Star rained down buckets on the Clippers in the third quarter of Game 5. He outscored the Clippers 25-24 by himself, shooting 10-for-11 as the Suns racked up a total of 50 points in the frame to set a franchise record for scoring in a single quarter of a playoff game. Phoenix’s plus-26 margin in the third quarter also registered as the club’s largest positive differential in a single quarter in franchise playoff history.
“We stressed in the locker room that we didn’t want to go back to L.A. unless it was for the Western Conference finals,” Booker said. “Being down nine points coming out of [the] half, we knew we wanted to do it quick, didn’t want to wait for the fourth quarter and try to fight an uphill battle.”
Booker tied a career postseason high with 47 points and now ranks as just the third player since 1997 to tally 25 points or more in one quarter of a playoff game (per Stathead, Allen Iverson and Damian Lillard also accomplished the feat). The three-time All-Star guard also surpassed Charles Barkley to set a franchise mark for career 40-point playoff games (six) and finished the first round of the Western Conference playoffs averaging 37.2 points per game on 60.2% shooting and 46.7% on 3-pointers.
Phoenix also improved to 12-1 with Durant in the lineup. Most importantly, Booker, Durant and company gained even more cohesion through five games of the opening round. That should come in handy in the Western Conference semifinals, where the Suns face the top-seeded Denver Nuggets on Saturday for Game 1 at Ball Arena.
Here are five takeaways from Game 5 as the Suns rest up for what should shape up to be a competitive series that starts in Denver.
1. Don’t forget about Durant
Booker’s wild numbers seem to push Durant into the background somewhat. But let’s remember the latter’s immense gravity opens up shots for the former. The fourth quarter of Game 5 provided some evidence of that as Durant nailed a 15-foot pullup jumper with 10:14 left to play but couldn’t fire up another shot until 58.8 seconds remained with Phoenix leading by two in a tight game due to constant coverage from the Clippers.
“I hate to have him in the corner sometimes, but they will not leave him, and it opens up the rest of the court for everybody else,” Booker said of Durant. “Our team is just figuring out that just him standing out there makes everything easier for everybody.”
Durant finds his own offense, too, having dropped 31 points in Game 5 to produce his 73rd career playoff outing with 30 points or more to move into sixth all-time, trailing Jerry West by one game. The former MVP has scored 25 points or more in every first-round game with Phoenix and has 122 career playoff games with 25 or more points (fifth all-time and two behind Kobe Bryant).
Booker and Durant are the first duo to each score 25-plus points in each of their first five games of a postseason since Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal accomplished the feat in the 2003 playoffs.
2. Paul’s big second half
If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that Chris Paul poured in 48 of his 68 first-round points in the second half of games, including 11 of his 15 points in Game 5. That’s coming off a Game 4 performance in which the 37-year-old scored a postseason-high 19 points (including 12 in the fourth quarter).
So instead of pointing out how the veteran might have lost a step, take note of how he seems to step up his game in crucial moments. Paul closed out the last two games of the series dishing 16 assists with only one turnover. Over the first four games, the 12-time All-Star delivered 34 dimes with just five turnovers.
3. Leonard, George kept LA scrambling
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard missed his third consecutive playoff game Tuesday due to a sprained right knee. That dropped LA to 0-3 in those games as it used Norman Powell in the starting lineup in Leonard’s place.
While Powell played solid as a fill-in and finished with 27 points in Game 5, the Clippers learned just how difficult it is to replace the production of a two-time NBA Finals MVP. They entered the series already down one star in Paul George. The eight-time All-Star missed the series and hasn’t played since March 23 because of a sprained right knee. LA tweaked the starting lineup somewhat for Game 5 to include Marcus Morris Sr. at power forward in place of Nicolas Batum. The move seemed questionable, considering LA already tried it for Game 4 and Morris struggled (nine points, 3-for-13 FGs and a game-worst minus-19).
Morris played better in Game 5, contributing 10 first-half points as three Clippers starters scored in double figures on the way to seizing a 71-60 halftime lead.
LA listed Leonard on the injury report Monday as out for Game 5, giving the team plenty of prep time to figure out how to attack the surging Suns on the road without Leonard and George.
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said Leonard initially suffered the right knee injury in Game 1 but continued to play through the pain in Game 2, leading to the forward’s condition eventually worsening, before the team elected to hold him out of the next three contests. Leonard averaged 34.5 points, 6.5 rebound and 6 assists in the series’ first two games, which the teams split.
4. What’s next?
With the 2022-23 season over for LA, it appears the championship window might be starting to close for a team that went 3-12 this season without Leonard and George. That duo is under contract for next season, but both have player options for 2024-25.
With LA set to open its new arena — the Intuit Dome — in 2024-25, George and Leonard may just opt out of the final year of their contracts to test free agency. George sounded like a man eager to make another run at a title alongside Leonard when he spoke Tuesday at the team’s morning shootaround.
Leonard, 31, sat out all last season recovering from a torn right ACL, but he played 38 games alongside George in 2022-23 as the Clippers went 24-14 in those games.
“To put so much into the season, put so much into this group and the organization, to put so much into making a team that could compete and again, year after year getting zapped by injuries, it’s frustrating,” George said. “We obviously had big plans to win and do something special for Clipper Nation, but I’m a big believer of everything happens for a reason. You just pick up the pieces and try to make a hand out of what you’re dealt with. I’m very optimistic that our time will come.”
5. Westbrook’s mini-revival
When Russell Westbrook joined the Clippers from the Lakers back in February (following a contract buyout from the Jazz), many pundits repeated concerns we’ve all heard about the point guard’s fit with the new team. But once George and Leonard suffered injuries that would force them out, the nine-time All-Star stepped up and likely increased his value in the 2023 free-agent market.
“He’s played himself back into the Russ that he was,” George said. “[There are] definitely going to be some decisions [for Westbrook to mull over in the offseason]. I definitely vouched for him to be here. I’m definitely vouching for him to come back. I just think he’s the leader that we need at the point guard position going forward.”
After scoring just nine points on 3-of-19 shooting while essentially winning Game 1, Westbrook averaged 32 points in Games 2-5, shooting 54% overall and 8-for-16 on 3-pointers during that span. That run was highlighted by a season-high 37 points (including 24 second-half points) in the team’s Game 4 loss in what was Westbrook’s highest scoring playoff game since 2018.
In Game 5, Westbrook struggled again (14 points on 3-for-18 shooting, eight rebounds and eight assists with five turnovers). Still, the former MVP spoke highly of his Clippers experience after Game 5.
“[There’s] something about being in this league for a long time, you understand the value of the small things,” Westbrook said. “The staff, the people they have here to take care of the players day in and day out is something I have really noticed since Day 1. It is a happy and enjoyable environment. Something that you don’t see everywhere.”
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