While the story entering the game may have been focused on the players who were unavailable, Chris Paul and Kawhi Leonard, the story coming out of Game 1 will be the back and forth battle between Devin Booker and Paul George as the two went at it all day long in the Suns’ 120-114 victory.
Booker finished the win with the Suns’ first playoff triple-double since Steve Nash accomplished the feat in 2005. The All-Star guard was masterful on the offensive end recording 40 points to go along with 13 rebounds and 11 assists as he seemingly made the right play whenever Phoenix needed it. On the other side, George led the charge for the Clippers finishing the game with 34 points, five assists and four rebounds but, in the end, it wasn’t enough to overcome Booker and the rest of the Suns.
With the win, the Suns grab the early momentum in this series as they look to defend their home floor and put themselves in a position to advance to the NBA Finals. These two teams will meet again on Tuesday night with the opening tip scheduled for 9 p.m. ET.
Here are three main takeaways from Game 1.
1. The Devin Booker show
With the Suns up two points with 22 seconds left, Booker got the ball on an after-timeout-play, noticed there wasn’t a single Clippers player within spitting distance of him and drove to the rim for a two-handed dunk. The crowd roared and Booker just polished off a 40-point triple-double to carry the Suns to a Game 1 win. It was an exclamation mark on what Booker did over the course of the game, where he went toe-to-toe with each L.A. defender put in front of him and continuously just kept knocking down shots. The magic in it though is the fact that he was getting to his spots with ease.
They ran a high screen and roll, and Booker got to his spot at the elbow and knocked down mid-range jumpers left and right. It felt like he took 100 of those shots today, and every time you knew it was coming. Yet the Clippers couldn’t do anything to stop it. He’d get the switch through the screen, have one defender on his hip and the other one deciding whether to surrender his position in the paint or come up and guard Booker, either way, it would’ve been a bad decision. The first option allows for an alley-hoop over the top to Ayton, who also had a dominant afternoon. The second choice results in a 40-point outburst from Booker, which certainly isn’t what you want if you’re the Clippers.
It was the latest example of Booker shedding that “empty stats” label that’s been attached to him throughout the entirety of his career, as he was efficient from the floor (51.7 percent), dished out 11 assists and grabbed 13 boards for a complete performance. It almost made you forget that this team was missing Chris Paul.
2. Missing in action: Clippers role players
Terrance Mann, Marcus Morris and Nicolas Batum combined to score 20 points, while George and Jackson carried a majority of the offensive workload for L.A. in Game 1. With Kawhi Leonard’s status still unknown going forward in this series, the Clippers need far more from those three players to have a fighting chance in this series. Another aspect of the game that stood out, was how much difficulty the Clippers had guarding Phoenix’s pick and roll. L.A. is supposed to be one of the best defensive teams in the league, and yet every trip down the floor there was a miscommunication, allowing for guys like Mikal Bridges to attack the rim with no resistance or Booker getting to any spot he wanted to on the floor.
Some of that likely has to do with the crowd noise, as the Suns’ fans absolutely brought it throughout the entire game. But that’s not enough of an excuse for this to happen.
Adjustments will certainly need to be made on the defensive end for the Clippers. But as far as offense goes, it can’t be completely up to George to carry this team every game. Morris and Batum need to knock down shots. Rondo needs to be more of a factor rather than just playing spot minutes. Perhaps we see more of DeMarcus Cousins in this series after putting up 11 points in five minutes early in the game. Whatever it is, if L.A.’s role players don’t show up, this could be a very short series.
3. Star power waiting in the wings
Both teams entered this game down important players, and while it’s still unclear about the status of both Paul and Leonard, the Suns are likelier to get their All-Star back sooner than the Clippers. Paul has been out due to health and safety protocols, and there’s no timetable for his return yet. But depending on the guidelines by the league, there’s a possibility that he could return for Game 2 on Tuesday night. For the Clippers, Leonard didn’t travel with the team to Phoenix to continue to receive treatment on his knee, and although L.A. hasn’t ruled him out for the series, the details around his return are still murky. Obviously, the Clippers would love to have Leonard back, but if he’s dealing with an ACL injury as previously reported, then it could be risky to rush him back before he’s ready. Although Booker and George more than stepped up in their counterparts’ absence, all eyes will be on the return of those two players as this series carries on.