LOS ANGELES (AP) – With Kevin Durant drawing defenders, Devin Booker found his way to the basket again and again.
Booker scored 45 points, Durant added 28, and the Phoenix Suns beat the Kawhi Leonard-less Los Angeles Clippers 129-124 on Thursday night to take a 2-1 Western Conference playoff series lead.
“He set the tone, getting to the rim, making plays for others, just controlling the whole game,” Durant said of Booker. “We’ll need him to do that in the future.”
Leonard went down with a sprained right knee, the same injury that has sidelined fellow star Paul George since March 21. Leonard was injured in the first game, and played in the second game, but later his condition did not improve.
“It’s one of those trick plays, where you think somebody’s missing one of their best players and you let off the gas a little bit,” Booker said. “They played their (backs) tonight. The whole team was ready for it, so we didn’t take a step back.”
Norman Powell led the way for the Clippers, scoring a career-high 42 points on 15-of-23 shooting. Russell Westbrook added 30 points and 11 assists.
The fourth game is played on Saturday in Los Angeles.
Booker shot 18-for-29 and had seven rebounds, three steals and two blocks while playing a game-high 44 minutes. In the second game, he scored 38 points.
“If it were up to me, I wouldn’t have gone out for those 12 minutes. My body feels good,” Booker said. “I dedicate my whole life to this sport and this game. When you do that on the big stage, you can’t ask for anything else.”
With Leonard watching from the bench, the Clippers kept it close throughout the first half, when neither team led by more than six.
The Clippers got within three on two Westbrook free throws with 1:44 left. After a 6-0 run by the Suns, Powell hit a 3-pointer, was fouled and made a free throw to pull the Clippers within 125-120.
Despite the heroics of former UCLA stars Powell and Westbrook, the Clippers have sorely missed Leonard’s offense. He had 38 points in a Game 1 win against Phoenix and 31 in a Game 2 loss.
The Suns went third behind Booker. He scored eight points on a 17-8 run to open the period and give Phoenix its first double-digit lead of the game, 71-59.
Booker credited Durant on the court for his ability to get to the basket.
“I scored a lot of buckets, I went up to him right away and said, ‘You opened it up for me,'” he said. “I expect the Clippers to make adjustments and it will be his turn to play.”
Suns coach Monty Williams said: “Sometimes I feel bad for Kev because he’s an expensive bait over there. He’s standing on the 28-yard box, and the defender is right in his face, and that gives Book plenty of opportunities to attack the basket.”
Westbrook scored seven straight to cut the Clippers’ deficit to 71-66. The Suns responded with eight straight, capped by Durant’s fierce one-handed dunk, to take a 79-66 lead. They were ahead by seven entering the fourth.
Without Leonard, the Clippers counted on Westbrook and he made his presence felt from the opening tip, leading a 6-0 run to start the game.
The Suns responded with 12 straight points before the Clippers answered with a 14-2 spurt that gave them a 20-14 lead.
The Clippers led by one when Durant, Chris Paul and Booker hit back-to-back 3-pointers to make it eight for Phoenix’s second-largest lead of the half.
Powell ran off eight straight points to send the Clippers into halftime trailing 54-51.
Suns: Booker had his fifth career 40-plus point postseason game. … Paul finished with 11 points and seven assists.
Clippers: Their reserves outscored the Suns’ bench 37-18, with Bones Hyland scoring 20 points. … Dropped to 3-10 this season without Leonard and George in the lineup. … Nicolas Batum was the only starter not to score.
Craig scored 15 points for the Suns, while hitting four 3-pointers. He is 10 of 16 from long range in the series.
“That’s three games in a row that he’s done that,” Booker said. “I encourage him to do that.”
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