Booker puts up triple-double, pushes Suns past Clippers in Game 1

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Modern NBA analytics don’t say, “nobody should ever shoot from the midrange” (despite how some old-school talking heads want to portray it). Rather, what the numbers say is, “only players who are very good from the midrange should take those shots.”

Devin Booker is very good from the midrange.

The Suns’ Booker was 7-of-12 shooting outside the paint but inside the three-point line on Sunday, and that opened up the rest of his game, including passing windows to teammates. He was particularly deadly in the third quarter, when the Clippers played center Ivica Zubac, who has to lay back on the pick-and-roll, and Booker just torched him getting any midrange shot he wanted.

Booker had his first every triple-double — 40 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists — and became the first Sun since Steve Nash to post a playoff triple-double.

It was all too much for the Clippers and the Suns took Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, 120-114. Game 2 is set for Tuesday night in Phoenix.

The Suns got the win without Chris Paul, who is still in the league’s health and safety protocols but is expected to return later this series (potentially Game 2). The Clippers were without Kawhi Leonard again as he recovers from an ACL sprain. While there is no timeline for Leonard, it is far less likely he plays this series.

Much like in Game 1 of the last round against Utah, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue was forced to go deep into his bench — 22 minutes for Rajon Rondo (who was -14) and 31 minutes combined for Zubac and DeMarcus Cousins — because the Clippers played less than 48 hours after closing out Utah in Game 6. Terance Mann didn’t have the bounce he did two nights before, and he wasn’t alone. (The Los Angeles front office can officially complain to the league, in the East both teams are getting two or three days off before the conference finals, but this is all driven by television and its money talks.)

“We’re built for it. We’re not gonna make excuses,” Reggie Jackson said after the game. “They played extremely well. We’re gonna go, get our rest, watch film, and try to get one in Game 2.”

Give the Suns full marks for capitalizing on those slowed Clippers by running at them, trying to push the pace and wear them down. The Suns finished with 16 fast break points (and a lot more in secondary transition) to the Clippers’ four.

In the half court, the Suns’ quick drives and sharp decision-making on when to kick out, moving the ball to open shooters, sparked the Suns’ offense. A lot of it was Booker, forced into more of a playmaking role with CP3 out and stepping up to the challenge. He had 18 points in the third quarter as he torched Zubac and the Clippers’ pick-and-roll defense, getting good look threes, midrangers, and some shots at the rim. The Clippers had no answers.

It was a Booker-sparked 10-2 run at the start of the fourth — while George was on the bench but Booker on the court — where the Suns really took control of the game (although the Clippers made it interesting).

“Devin definitely took control, he led the team,” Deandre Ayton said after the game. “He made sure we played as a unit and didn’t forget our togetherness on the floor.

“He stole some of my boards, but it’s all good.”

Mikal Bridges scored 14 for the Suns, Jae Crowder 13, and as a team the Suns shot 40.6% from 3.

“This is a different caliber team than the other two teams we faced,” George said. “Little bit more guard play. And so, we’ve got to figure out how to counter, which we will. We’ll figure out another game plan.”

George had 34 for the Clippers, and Reggie Jackson chipped in 24. Cousins provided a little offensive spark with 11.

Lue threw everything against the wall in the first couple of games against Dallas in the first round and Utah in the second round — and the Clippers went down 0-2 in both series. However, by Game 3 Lue and the Clippers figured out what worked and dominated the rest of the way.

It will be much harder for the Clippers to do this series — the Suns are better and more diverse in their attack. Plus, they will get Chris Paul back.