Devin Booker needs to play the key role for the Suns to advance, and he didn’t do that in Game 1

MINNEAPOLIS – Devin Booker lost his dribble on the baseline, but the Phoenix Suns guard recovered and dribbled to the corner. Minnesota big man Rudy Gobert smothered him, trapping Booker in the corner. It seemed like he had nowhere to go.

But in a flash, Booker turned and dribbled behind his back toward the baseline, getting a step on the seven-foot-tall Gobert. Booker held the ball in his right hand, used the rim to protect against the trailing Gobert and made a nifty reverse layup. He fell in court at Target Center.

The play in the first half reflected what it was like on Saturday against the Timberwolves. Nothing came easy for Booker. The only difference is that this shot was fired. The rest of the afternoon was a struggle, one of the main reasons why third-seeded Minnesota dropped sixth-seeded Phoenix 120-95 in Game 1 of this Western Conference first-round series.

An opening loss on the road is far from a death sentence in a seven-game series. After all, Phoenix lost Game 1 at home to the Los Angeles Clippers last season before winning the next four. Win on Tuesday and the Suns return to Phoenix with home field advantage. Momentum can quickly change that.

Still, Saturday’s result provided an undeniable conclusion: The Suns can’t win this series without Booker playing a key role. Even with Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal next to him, he has to be the alpha. It’s his time. His team.

In Game 1, Booker shot 5 of 16 from the field and finished with 18 points, nine below his season average. He battled early foul trouble and never found a rhythm. The only time he made consecutive shots was in the first quarter. His biggest offensive contribution came from the foul line, where he made 6 of 6, all in the second half.

“We all just have to adjust to the physicality of the playoffs,” Booker said. “They were ultra-physical against me, and then I got three early fouls and went to the bench. After that it was just trying to find a rhythm.”

On Saturday, a lot of attention was paid to the games between these teams in the regular season. Phoenix defeated Minnesota in all three games, by an average of 15.7 points. Booker averaged 22.3 points in those games, but the Timberwolves have defended him well, holding him to 42 percent shooting. Of the Western Conference teams Booker played more than once, only Utah (41.7 percent) and Houston (41.4) fared better.

“Give their perimeter players credit,” said Suns coach Frank Vogel, referring mainly to Jaden McDaniels and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. “They have some great perimeter defenders on that team, but we can be more creative in getting Booker open.”

The physicality was evident. Not long after the reverse layup, Booker drove through the lane against McDaniels. At 6-9, McDaniels is one of the league’s best defensemen, someone who steps onto the field thinking he can is the top defender. Against Booker, McDaniels held his arms up, but Booker thought he lowered them and made contact. He didn’t get the call.

Booker argued for official Marc Davis. After missing a jumper, he spread his arms in disbelief, still furious. On the next dead ball, Booker discussed the play with official Aaron Smith.

“Guys like that just have to pick up every possession and rise to the challenge,” Alexander-Walker said. “He has made a name for himself as a goalscorer and a complete player. An All Star. For me, the mentality is: if he technically scores, he should do it because of who he is, so I just approach it like I have nothing to lose.”

Phoenix didn’t play with the same urgency, a trap the Suns have fallen into before. They knew Anthony Edwards, who struggled against them during the regular season, would be better, and he was, with 33 points. They knew the Timberwolves would come with something to prove, and they did, setting the home crowd on fire.

The Suns were outscored 65-44 in the second and third quarters. They were hammered, giving up 20 second chance points. While that might be expected given Minnesota’s size, the Suns did little to counter it. Durant scored 31 points but had five of the team’s 15 turnovers. The league’s most accurate three-point shooter, Grayson Allen, was without a field goal and left in the second half with a sprained ankle. Beal had 15 points and Royce O’Neale added 14, but more was needed.

Especially now that Booker is struggling to find a comfort zone.

“I just think he missed some hard ones and some easy ones that he normally makes,” Durant said. “He could be more aggressive and take more shots in the first half. But for the most part, he’s trying to play the right way. He tries to play hard. I’m not worried about Book.”

Vogel reminded everyone that this is still a new team. Just because certain players have postseason experience doesn’t mean this Phoenix group is postseason tested. Every game will be a learning experience. The next step is to respond. Game 2 is Tuesday.

“I believe in the guys and the experience level of the guys that we have in our group and what we’ve done individually in our playoff experiences, but we’ve got to get through it together,” Vogel said. “It won’t always be smooth sailing, but setbacks are good for us.”

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(Photo by Devin Booker: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)