With five and a half minutes left in the second quarter on Tuesday night, the Kevin Durant experiment looked to be in danger of becoming a bust.
The Phoenix Suns trailed the Los Angeles Clippers by 13 points at home and appeared set to go down two games to none in their opening round playoff series. The Clippers star Kawhi Leonard was hitting shots from everywhere, and Russell Westbrook was bouncing back from a 3-for-19 shooting performance in Game 1.
But from then on, the new-look Suns looked the way they were supposed to look when Durant was acquired in a trade with the Nets in February. They tied the score by halftime. They went ahead by 10 four minutes into the third quarter. And they went on to even the series with a 123-109 victory.
Devin Booker led Phoenix with 38 points, Durant had 25 and Chris Paul had 16.
A big difference in Game 2 was Phoenix’s shooting. The Suns shot 58.8 percent from the field and 41.7 percent on their 3-pointers, significant improvements from 47.6 and 31.6 percent in Game 1.
The Suns got particularly hot late when the Clippers threatened to creep back into the game. With three minutes left and the Clippers within 6, Paul took a guarded midrange fadeaway with plenty of time on the shot clock. It didn’t look like the kind of shot Coach Monty Williams or the home fans might have chosen, but it was the kind of night where that shot went in.
The Suns are a team in particular need of a championship. The franchise joined the N.B.A. in the 1968-69 season and has made it to the finals three times: in 1976 with Paul Westphal and Alvan Adams, in 1993 with Charles Barkley, and two seasons ago with Booker and Paul. But Phoenix lost all three times it played for the title.
To take the next step, the team added Durant, and the move looked to be working as the Suns were 8-0 when he played in the regular season (he missed 18 other games, mostly because of an ankle injury). The Suns, though only a four seed, became a hot pick to win the title, and they remain the third favorite among most oddsmakers, behind only the Celtics and the Bucks of the East.
But after losing Game 1 against the Clippers at home, Game 2 became effectively a must win. Even now, the best-of-seven series is tied and heading to Los Angeles.
Williams admitted that he remains wary, particularly of Leonard, who had 31 points in Game 2. “Any time you can get the ball in your best player’s hands and space the floor well, it allows you to be more efficient,” he said. “That’s what they are doing with Kawhi. He gets it at the nail” — at the center of the free throw line — “it’s a tough place to double team.”