PHOENIX – When the clock read triple zeros Sunday, the Phoenix Suns and their fans were left shocked.
In front of a rowdy and expectant crowd at the Footprint Center, the Suns had dropped their first game with Kevin Durant in the lineup to the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 1 of their first-round series and set off an alarming wake-up call to start the postseason.
But the Game 1 loss could just be another tally to add to the laundry list of setbacks for the Suns on their journey to winning their first NBA title. Because two days after that lackluster showing at home, the Suns rebounded nicely in Game 2, beating the Clippers 123-109 behind an improved effort in the rebound battle and a superstar performance from Devin Booker, who dropped 38 points.
But the biggest improvement was with their “juice.”
After the Game 1 upset, Suns coach Monty Williams said there was a “juice” problem, a phrase he has used consistently throughout the season to describe the team’s energy or competitive spirit, two key components Phoenix lacked Sunday but made up for in Tuesday’s double-digit win.
“We didn’t play the kind of basketball that we are accustomed to,” Williams said Monday. “[The Clippers] had a lot to do with it, but the rebounding piece was something that they know we have to do a better job.”
In Game 1, the Suns’ lack of intensity and effort showed on the glass. They allowed 15 offensive rebounds to the Clippers, nine of which came from guard Russell Westbrook and center Ivcia Zubac.
“Our energy was off a little bit,” Suns forward Torrey Craig said. “It shouldn’t have been, though. It’s the playoffs atmosphere, packed house. We’ve got to get off to a better start and get to a rhythm faster.”
In 48 hours, that issue was minimized by winning the rebounding battle, 35-32. While the Clippers still grabbed 12 offensive rebounds, only three came in the fourth quarter and none led to second-chance points. In Game 1, that was a huge problem late with Westbrook acting as the catalyst to that rim pressure and securing those rebounds, but he was only allowed one offensive rebound in Game 2.
“Anytime we rebound the ball like we rebounded tonight- everyone who won the rebound battle has won the game,” Williams said postgame Tuesday. “When we rebound like that, we can get it to either one of [Booker and Durant] and now as I have said before, our best offense is a defensive stop.”
On Tuesday, Phoenix again fell to a double-digit deficit early in the first half, but this time went on an 11-2 run that ended on a buzzer-beater 3-pointer by Booker to tie the game entering halftime. The stretch gave the Suns some much-needed momentum entering the break.
The Suns’ mid-game adjustments, which were discussed Monday at practice, deserves credit for the run, in addition to the players believing in their coach.
In his fourth year with the franchise, and his third year in the playoffs, Williams’ trust in his top guys is apparent. And while new additions may change the dynamic, the maturity of those fresh arrivals allows them to flawlessly fit in with the culture.
Durant pointed out that since he came to the Suns in the February trade, he has noticed this franchise has had a great foundation. After the Game 1 loss, that foundation was proven to be more stable than ever, with spirits inside the practice facilities high heading into Game 2. From top to bottom, there was an understanding of the job at hand, and it didn’t need to be forced upon anyone.
“It’s whatever team hits first,” Suns Forward Jock Landale said. “I’m not a big believer in rah-rah in the locker room before the game. I think that there’s a bit of fake energy behind that, but I think it’ll be whoever comes out and plants a shoulder into someone or a foreman. I think that’s going to really set the tone for us.”
That 11-2 run entering halftime was the tone-setter the Suns needed as they led the rest of the way thanks to the splendid 25-point second-half performance by Booker. The Suns All-Star 38-point onslaught is his highest point total since March 19th and his highest scoring playoff game since Game 5 of the 2021 NBA Finals.
“Then coming out of the halftime break, it was juice, toughness [and] grit,” Williams said after Tuesday’s game. “When [Booker] is going downhill like that, he is hard to guard.”
Now, heading to Los Angeles for Thursday night’s Game 3, the Suns have tied the best-of-seven series a game a piece and seemingly have rediscovered their juice. Phoenix can’t dissolve the Game 1 disaster but can pivot and respond with how the Suns have all season. During the regular season, the franchise has had to endure adversity with injuries and other mishaps that have stood in the Suns’ way of accomplishing their aspirations of lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy with the Clippers being the latest roadblock on that path.
“We know it is going to be a tough series,” Westbrook said. “They came back and took care of business tonight.”