If Deandre Ayton hadn’t flushed down the Valley Oop, Patrick Beverley’s defense on Devin Booker would’ve been a far larger story emerging from Game 2. Beverley, inserted into the starting lineup after a tiny 15-minute role in the opener, pestered Booker into his worst shooting night of the playoffs and, diving for a steal attempt, headbutted and broke Booker’s nose.
Beverley stripped Booker for what appeared to be the game-sealing steal in the final minute, then sauntered around Phoenix’s arena yelling “First Team!” at the crowd, one finger in the air, reminiscent of Tony Allen back in the day. But Paul George missed two free throws on the stolen possession, Ayton guided in the dunk and nobody discussed Beverley’s defense in the aftermath because it hadn’t yet shifted the tenor of the series.
Now it has. Beverley, again in the role as the primary Booker defender, frustrated Booker into an even worse shooting night Thursday. He went 5 of 16 in Game 2. He went 5 of 21 in Game 3. Ten makes on 35 attempts, spread over two games, for the same elite three-level scorer who went 15 of 29 for 40 points in the opener, before Beverley began his haywire defensive act.
The Suns lost Thursday for the first time in 10 games. The Clippers beat them 106-92 and tightened the Western Conference finals to 2-1 in the best-of-seven series. The big-swing Game 4 comes Saturday night and, in the next 48 hours, Phoenix has to reflect and adjust for the first time in nearly a month. The Suns’ previous loss was May 27.
Chris Paul, fresh out of COVID-19 quarantine, looked rusty and slowed the team’s pace. He went 5 of 19 and didn’t attempt a shot in the restricted area. Phoenix’s offense looked stuck in mud against a desperate Clippers team defense. Monty Williams and Paul acknowledged as much after the game.
“A lot of our stuff came late in the clock,” Williams said. “That’s not how we’ve been playing most of the playoffs.”
“We missed Cam Payne,” Paul said. “I’ve been at home watching these last two games, and I saw the pace that he was playing with.”
Williams said, given the choice, he would’ve played more Payne and less Paul. But he didn’t have the choice. Payne sprained his ankle in the first half and wasn’t able to go in the second half. His status is iffy. That’s a concern, raising the pressure on Paul to rediscover his rhythm quicker.
But the Suns have won a few games in the playoffs with an extremely limited Paul and, at times, only a splash of Payne. Remember the way Paul was dragging around that shoulder in the Lakers series? The Suns still closed because Booker detonated at the right moments. He’s capable, but he’ll have to solve Beverley and Terance Mann, who has done a great job of tag-teaming into the matchup and maintaining the pressure.
Beverley, nearly a half-foot shorter than Booker, isn’t a George-type wing defender who is just going to operate against you straight up in the half court and trust his length and quickness to bother your shot. Against scorers like Booker, he must announce his pestering presence at random spots on the floor at annoying times.
Beverley broke Booker’s nose in three places during a reckless Game 2 hustle play. Between games, Booker had to undergo a procedure.
“Eight shots to numb it up,” Booker said, calling it “probably the worst part of the experience. … They break it again. They break it back in place.”
Booker decided to wear a facemask to protect his nose. He called Pistons legend Rip Hamilton to discuss it. Hamilton wore a mask for much of his career. He told Booker to ignore the mask. Don’t even take it off when you’re at the free-throw line. Pretend it’s not there.
Booker said it didn’t bother him. Paul, who broke his nose years ago with the Clippers and wore a facemask for a few games, brushed it off as only a tiny nuisance. Williams said Booker wouldn’t make it an excuse, and he predicted correctly. But if you watched the game, you could tell it was bothering him. Against Hamilton’s advice, Booker was fidgeting with it every 20 seconds.
With that as the backdrop, you know Booker was trying to ease into the game, feel it out as he adjusted to the mask. But Beverley is not a feel-it-out player. He’s a jump-you-on-an-inbound, whisper-in-your-ear, poke-you-in-your-side-off-the-ball type of defender. In the opening minutes, as Booker gathered a rebound and prepared to bring it up the court, Beverley snuck in and snagged it from him.点此处查看视频链接>>
That isn’t just an extra first-quarter possession for the Clippers. It’s an announcement by Beverley to Booker that he’s going to be buzzing in his area all game, which he was. Again. Beverley has been in and out of the rotation during the playoffs. But Clippers coach Tyronn Lue has found a perfect role for him in this series, as the Booker nuisance, and it is toughening up this series for the Suns. He even baited Booker into foul trouble at one point.
“Pat is the best rearview challenge guy in the game,” Lue said. “He’s going to block the shot from behind, contest from behind and make it hard on you. He gets into the ball. He’s physical, and I just think making that (starting lineup) change with him and (Ivica Zubac shifted things). Zu at the rim with the verticality and Pat to be able to protect him on the pull-up jump shots. That’s been a big change and a big spark to our defense.”
This is the type of play Lue is referencing. Beverley deftly jumps forward to avoid Deandre Ayton’s screen, snakes around him and busts his tail to jump up and get a contest on Booker’s pull-up jumper, “protecting” Zubac in drop coverage. He doesn’t get credit for a block on this possession, but it’s just a significantly better contest than anyone was getting on Booker in his 40-point Game 1 waterfall of midrange jumpers.点此处查看视频链接>>
It’s even seeped down to his bigger understudy, Mann, who was noticeably better against Booker in Game 3. Look at this highlight block.点此处查看视频链接>>
There was a moment in the fourth quarter when Game 3 was tightening. The Suns went on a 12-0 run and cut the Clippers’ lead to six. If they completed the comeback, the series and the Clippers’ season would have been all but over. No team in NBA history has come back from down 3-0 in the playoffs.
Beverley was out of the game for much of the run. In this series, the Suns are plus-7 in Booker’s minutes without Beverley on the court and minus-12 in Booker’s minutes with Beverley on the court. Booker is shooting 31 percent with 10 turnovers when Beverley’s on the floor and 44 percent with only four turnovers when he’s off it.
Lue put Beverley back in the game and put him on Booker for the possession that ended up shifting all the momentum back to the Clippers. Booker curled off an Ayton screen in the corner and tried to rise up for a 3 that would’ve cut the lead to three. Beverley slithered around it and used his quick, accurate hands to strip Booker on the way up, setting up a fast break that ended in a Clippers bucket. They were up double digits soon after. Here’s the play.点此处查看视频链接>>
Phoenix was hesitant to discuss adjustments after the game. Williams said he mostly liked the shots Booker took and that he trusts him to make more in Game 4. Booker credited Beverley but alluded to the fact that, considering the obsessive way Beverley is defending him (with plenty of other helping eyes fixated on Booker), others need to step up.
“He’s ultra-aggressive,” Booker said. “He’s denying, limiting touches. He has one objective out there, and we understand that. 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.”
“He’s physical for sure,” Williams said. “That can wear a guy down. We have to do a much better job of having more balance.”
Maybe Booker will get more help from a springier Paul on Saturday. Maybe Booker will ditch the mask, get physical in the mid-post and use his size and skill advantage to bully Beverley into bucket after bucket, like Kevin Durant once did mid-series. Maybe he doesn’t even need to ditch the mask to do so.
But for now, Beverley’s hounding defense and Lue’s deployment of it have shifted this series into a more dramatic place.