Blood ran down the nose of Devin Booker. More pooled in the fabric of Patrick Beverley’s jersey.
The guards’ head-to-head collision, accidental yet perhaps inevitable during a chippy second game of these Western Conference finals, opened not only wounds but also opportunity for the Clippers, who badly needed one. Trailing by seven with 14 minutes remaining Tuesday and an offense that had sputtered at best, they watched as Booker and Beverley both retreated to their locker rooms, the Suns temporarily deprived of their most talented scorer.
Booker emerged from underneath Phoenix Suns Arena more than three minutes later, having received two stitches on the bridge of his nose and a standing ovation. When Beverley returned with a headband covering the spot on his forehead where he held gauze minutes earlier, the two resumed the one-on-one confrontation that had defined so much of this 104-103 Suns victory.
For two hours, Beverley — in his first start since Game 2 of the first round — pestered Booker over screens and through the paint, turning what Booker hoped to be an encore to his victorious Game-1, triple-double masterpiece into a war of attrition. It was Beverley who threw his head back with 66 seconds remaining, selling an offensive foul on Booker to give the Clippers the ball and a chance to tie while trailing 100-97, a possession they used to trim their deficit to just one.
After Paul George and Booker traded baskets and the lead on three consecutive possessions, it was Beverley who poked Booker’s dribble away out of bounds in front of Phoenix’s bench and frantically called for a video review — a call overturned to become Clippers’ ball with just 9 seconds to play and the Clippers leading by one.
When George missed two free throws with 7.8 seconds left, he shook his head in the ensuing timeout, setting the stage in the only appropriate way for a final defensive stand.
Given the ball back with eight-tenths of a second left after a missed three-pointer by teammate Mikal Bridges, the Suns’ Jae Crowder lofted a pass not to Booker, smothered by Beverley, but to 7-foot Deandre Ayton, who skied above the rim to flush a dunk over center Ivica Zubac and launch 16,645 out of their seats, creating a wall of sound not heard in this building in the postseason in more than a decade.
A lengthy video review confirmed the basket but added seven-tenths of a second onto the clock.
Nicolas Batum heaved a pass beyond midcourt to George, who did not turn to shoot in time before this chaotic, unforgettable playoff game ended with the Suns putting the Clippers in a 2-0 hole for the third consecutive round.
Booker scored 20 points but made only five of 16 shots and committed seven turnovers.
“Think Pat did a great job trying to disrupt him early, kept him bottled up for most the night,” said guard Reggie Jackson, who scored 19 points. “I like that matchup. Great player and you got a great defender, a dog who’s ready to go out there and compete.”
Ayton finished with 24 points, 14 rebounds and the final exclamation mark, but it was Cameron Payne’s career-high 29 points, and the Clippers’ stagnating offense, that did them in, coach Tyronn Lue said.
“We let one get away,” he said.
George scored 26 points but on 23 shots and missed five of 10 free throws.
“It sucks to be right there and lose, but it’s basketball,” Jackson said. “I like our odds. I like this team.”
Suns coach Monty Williams still feared this team, even though the Clippers had played every other day since June 2, were without Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka because of injuries and another starter, Marcus Morris, was available but scored seven points, making three of 11 shots, on a sore left knee he injured Sunday.
Yet they still had Lue on their sideline. And that was enough to concern his counterpart.
“I think it goes right to Ty,” Williams said before the game. “You never see him get rattled in those situations, and I think the team feeds off of that.”
Opportunities to be rattled surfaced early. Morris missed six of his first seven shots. George missed his first five shots and after he chased his lost dribble to the floor midway through the first quarter, Crowder placed his feet on either side of George’s waist and glared at him from above. It earned Crowder and Morris technical fouls, after Morris ran in with a protective shove.
It was a return to the antagonism that followed these teams throughout the season. Neither George nor Booker, on opposite side of a heated argument in January, dapped knuckles before tipoff.
But even as an all-reserves Clippers lineup mustered only one point in three minutes to start the second quarter, Phoenix was little better.
Hampered by two early fouls and unable to pick apart the Clippers’ “drop” pick-and-roll coverage as he had in Game 1, Booker scored only nine points, committed five turnovers and the Suns led by only one at halftime despite the Clippers’ five-for-15 three-point shooting.
When Booker touched the ball, Beverley was often only a few inches away. Their collision 10 minutes later brought them, and eventually their teams, even closer in a game in which separation did not arrive until the final second.
“We understand that we’ve been in this position before,” Lue said, “even though we hate it.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.