Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker is expected to be out two to three weeks with a Grade 1 right hamstring strain, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, after he suffered the injury with 4:45 left in the third quarter of his team’s 125-114 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans in Game 2 of the Western Conference quarterfinals on Tuesday night.
Booker, who led the Suns in scoring this season at 26.8 points per game, will be a very difficult piece to replace in the interim. Phoenix went 8-6 in games without Booker during the regular season, and backup guard Landry Shamet and backup forward Cameron Johnson are not perceived to be legitimate scoring threats at all three levels.
In Booker’s absence, starting point guard Chris Paul will have to shoulder a greater load offensively. Paul had 30 points — 19 of which came during the fourth quarter — during the Suns’ Game 1 win on Sunday, but was limited to 17 points on 5-of-16 shooting on Tuesday.
“It’s part of the game, you know what I mean?” Paul said after the Suns’ Game 2 loss on Tuesday. “We got guys that are more than capable of stepping up. I mean, Book was killing it. He was having a big time game, but it is what it is.”
How exactly will Booker’s injury affect the Suns? Well, it will certainly be more than the offensive end.
New Orleans has averaged 112 points per game this series, including an effort on Tuesday in which they shot 17-of-30 (56.7 percent) from the 3-point line and 46-of-84 (54.8 percent) from the field. It was an out-of-character effort overall for the Suns, who ranked ninth in the NBA by allowing 107.4 points per game this season.
Starting forward Brandon Ingram was a huge part of that performance, scoring 37 points on 13-of-21 shooting. Ingram is a very difficult matchup for Phoenix, as he stands at 6-foot-8 and has a 7-foot-3 inch wingspan.
“You just got to play the game, just know tendencies and be aggressive, but he’s tough,” Suns starting forward Mikal Bridges said of Ingram. “He can go right past you, he’s long. You just got to play the game, be aggressive. It ain’t easy, it ain’t easy. You just got to fight and play hard.”
In general, New Orleans’ height is especially challenging. At small forward, Herbert Jones stands at 6-foot-7, and center Jonas Valanciunas is 6-foot-11 and 265 pounds, making things difficult for Suns center Deandre Ayton on the defensive glass.
That was especially prevalent in Game 1. Valanciunas had 25 rebounds, 13 of which came on the offensive glass. He wasn’t needed as much in Game 2 but still recorded 13 boards.
Jonas Valanciunas leads all post season players with 16 offensive rebounds (in only 2 games). Jokic is next with 13 in 3 games.
JV has more offensive rebounds than Hawks, Mavs, Nets, Suns, and Heat do as a team. The Mavs have played 3 games!
— Shamit Dua (@FearTheBrown) April 22, 2022
How Phoenix matches up will be interesting for the remainder of the series. With Booker out, the Suns could opt for length with Johnson in the starting lineup. If they go with Shamet — a pesky defender — they could have a valid option for defending All-Star guard CJ McCollum, who shot below 40 percent in each of the first two games but still combined for 48 points.
Perhaps the biggest challenge presented for the Suns is the savviness of Pelicans coach Willie Green, who previously worked on Phoenix’s staff. Suns coach Monty Williams has noted the “toughness” of New Orleans as instituted by Green, which has made things difficult for Phoenix on both ends of the floor despite the Pelicans posting a 36-46 record during the regular season.
To survive without Booker, the Suns will also have to be much better in the third quarter. They’ve been outscored 71-48 in that period during the series, which has negated impressive first-half performances.
“Guys’ intentions are always in the right place,” Paul said. “Our team intentions are always in the right place, the effort of our team is always there.
“Sometimes it just comes down to focusing on details of the game, and it can appear a certain way, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that guys are taking plays off or playing lackadaisically.”
Phoenix and New Orleans will tip off in Game 3 tonight at 6:30 p.m. MT on ESPN. The Suns have been challenged with five losses in their last eight games, and they will need to have a better effort in order to get the series back on track.
It’s something Williams expects his team to have.
“We get to go to their place and do what we do,” Williams said. “We’ve been really good on the road, historically good on the road, we’ve played without Chris and Book before. If we have to play without Book, next man up and we’ve done that all year long.”