If there was one thing Tuesday night that would have been near a worst-case scenario for the Phoenix Suns, it happened. Suns star guard Devin Booker left the team's game against the New Orleans Pelicans late in the third quarter after suffering a hamstring injury. He had 31 points in just 24 minutes in Game 2, which the Pelicans won 125-114 to tie the series at one game apiece.
Head coach Monty Williams didn't have much to say post-game regarding the injury. He told reporters that the Suns will have a better update on the NBA All-Star's status Wednesday.
"We'll get more information, we'll have a better update tomorrow." – Monty Williams on Devin Booker's hamstring
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) April 20, 2022
Though he didn't have a status update, Williams' comments weren't exactly optimistic about a quick return for Booker.
“If we have to play without Book, next man up,” he said. “And we've done that all year long.”
Suddenly, the first-round series with the eight-seeded Pelicans takes a different shape. With the series shifting to New Orleans for Games 3 and 4, things can spiral out of control quickly if the Suns come out flat again Friday night.
If Booker is indeed going to miss time with the hamstring injury, other players are going to have to step up in order for Phoenix to avoid becoming victims of an all-time NBA Playoffs upset. Here are three players that must shoulder a heavier load for the Suns to put the Pelicans away.
The obvious player that needs to shine in a potential Booker absence is the one that'll likely take his spot in the starting lineup. Landry Shamet started 14 games in the 2021-2022 regular season, and Booker didn't appear in any of those 14.
There was a clear drop-off when Shamet was in Booker's place. He averaged 12.4 points per game in his 14 starts on 40% shooting both from the field and from three.
To add to the complications, Shamet himself is coming off an injury. He missed game one against the Pelicans with a foot injury, although he came off the bench to replace Booker in Game 2. Shamet scored five points in 11 minutes Tuesday night.
If Booker misses an extended period of time for the Suns, Shamet doesn't have to replicate Booker's production, of course, since almost no one in the NBA could. What Shamet needs to bring is consistency. He needs to be somebody that can spot up from three and weave through a defense off the ball.
What Shamet can't do, Cam Johnson can. The NBA Sixth Man of the Year finalist can create his own shot off the dribble, which is going to be the biggest missing piece if Booker is out.
Johnson's historically received a statistical bump when Booker hasn't been on the floor. In 12 games for the Suns without Booker this season, Johnson averaged 29.3 minutes, 16 points, and eight three-point attempts per game, up from 25.5 minutes, 11.6 points, and 5.6 three-point attempts with Booker on the court.
He's going to be the secondary ball-handler to Paul without Booker. He'll need to take over some of the missing long-range production from Booker and the tough-shot making, which Johnson is capable of.
If there's any player on this list that can fill Booker's void the best, it's Johnson. He'll have to out-duel Brandon Ingram at some point, and we'll see if he's up for the challenge.
The biggest takeaway of the New Orleans series so far is clear and obvious: The Suns are getting killed on the boards.
Much was made of the Suns' rebounding struggles after the Game 1 win. New Orleans cleaned Phoenix up on the glass 55-35, plus an astounding 25-5 differential on offensive rebounds. Luckily for the Suns, the Pelicans' shot-making wasn't good enough to capitalize on the domination on the boards, but it was a cause for concern.
The numbers weren't quite as egregious in Game 2, but the Suns' poor rebounding still played a big role in the loss. Even if Booker was cleared to play for Friday's Game 3, Deandre Ayton would need to get his act together on the glass. With a potential length absence looming for Booker, Ayton's improvement is crucial for the Suns.
Ayton's Game 2 was rather pedestrian. He was a game-worst -13 and scored 10 points with 9 rebounds. Contrasted with a 10 and 13 stat line for Jonas Valanciunas, who was +5 in 26 minutes, Ayton left much to be desired.
As previously covered, Valanciunas is the type of big that Ayton traditionally struggles with. Ayton plays the center position with finesse, typically covering lots of ground outside of the paint to set high screens on offense or provide help defense. But the numbers don't lie, Ayton needs to get better on the boards. With Booker missing time for the Suns, he can't get killed on the glass anymore.