After overcoming Luka Doncic and Donovan Mitchell in the first two rounds, the Clippers now have to figure out a way to slow down Booker. With Chris Paul in health and safety protocols, Booker was an unstoppable playmaker, delivering 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists to lift the Suns to a 120-114 win over the Clippers on Sunday at Phoenix Suns Arena.
The Clippers have trailed in each of their previous series before making adjustments. And they believe they will do the same again against Phoenix.
“This is a different caliber team than the other two teams we faced,” George said of the Suns compared to the Mavericks and Jazz. “A little bit more guard play. And so we just have to figure out how to counter, which we will. We’ll figure out another game plan.
“As much as we wanted this one, I think this was a good feel-out game to see adjustments. We’ve been great adjusting, and you know, we’ve been great at playing better as the series goes on.”
Once again, George rose to the occasion with Kawhi Leonard missing his third straight game because of a sprained right knee. George scored 34 points and hit seven 3-pointers, the third time he has done that against the Suns in the regular season and postseason this season.
But Booker outdueled George to become just the fourth player to record a 40-point triple double in conference finals history, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.
Complicating their ability to slow down Booker was an injury to Marcus Morris Sr. The starting power forward experienced left knee pain and received treatment on it at halftime, according to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols.
Morris, who gives the Clippers flexibility when they go to a smaller lineup to help switching defensively, did not start the second half. He tried to play but was able to go for only five minutes after halftime and sat for the final 9:05 of the fourth quarter.
Clippers coach Ty Lue said he wasn’t sure how Morris was doing after the game.
The Clippers could not contain Booker in the second half when the Suns guard had 29 points, eight assists and seven rebounds while playing the entire half.
This is the third straight Game 1 in which the Clippers could not contain the opposing star. In Game 1 of the first round against Dallas, Doncic had a triple-double of 31 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds in a Mavericks win. In Game 1 of the second round against Utah, Mitchell had 45 points in a Jazz victory.
“[Booker] played with the ball but he does a great job playing off the ball whether it be off ball screens, getting himself open, really, really good in the midrange,” Clippers point guard Reggie Jackson said of the new challenge of defending Booker. “The other two [Doncic and Mitchell], really [they are more] 3-ball and [getting] to the rim guys. They are all three-level scorers.
“[But with Booker], it’s hard when you put so much pressure coming downhill and then he pulls up. He’s the complete package. We have to find a way to bottle him up.”
The Clippers are expected to be without Leonard, whose status for the Western Conference finals remains uncertain, in Game 2. And now Morris is banged up. But George believes the Clippers will do what they did in each of the first two rounds when they became the first team in NBA history to overcome a 2-0 deficit in multiple series in the same postseason.
“I expect us to get better as the series goes,” George said. “We’ve been great at it. It’s nothing to kind of panic over right now. You know, we were down Kawhi. We’re playing with a banged-up Marcus. Yeah, they don’t have Chris Paul either, but it’s a game of adjustments. We’ll figure out what we need to do better.”
DeMarcus Cousins, who scored 11 points, said the Clippers will figure things out.
“We’ll adjust,” Cousins said. “I promise.”