NBA

Devin Booker: Pair of clutch free-throws lift Phoenix Suns over Portland Trail Blazers in regular season classic

For the second time this season, Devin Booker iced a win for the Phoenix Suns with a pair of clutch free-throws.

Trailing 117-116 with 4.4 seconds to play, Booker drove to the right side of the lane and pulled up for a mid-range jumper. Portland Trail Blazers' guard Norman Powell was called for a foul on the shot, sending Booker to the line. Portland head coach Terry Stotts challenged the play, but the call would stand, leaving the game in Booker's hands.

The All-Star guard calmy buried both, ensuring the Suns claimed the 118-117 win in one of the games of the season. Booker finished the night with 18 points, struggling from the field to finish just 5-for-17, though he did knock down all eight of his attempts from the charity stripe.

"It takes a mental toughness, stamina, all the stuff we talk about to make plays in those moments after a game where you haven't shot it that well," Suns head coach Monty Williams said. "The great ones have a short memory."

Back in April, Booker knocked down two clutch free throws with 0.3 seconds left in overtime against the Bucks, lifting the Suns to a 128-127 road win after being fouled by P.J. Tucker.

The win improved Phoenix to 49-21 on the season, 1.0 game back of the Utah Jazz for the top seed in the West. If the season were to end tonight, the Suns would face a challenging first-round matchup against either the Los Angeles Lakers or the Golden State Warriors.

Despite potentially clashing with LeBron James and the defending champions, Williams contends seeding won't necessarily matter when the postseason tips off.

"In the Western Conference, seeding doesn't necessarily matter, man. There's gonna be tough teams 1-8," Williams said.

Veteran point guard Chris Paul echoed his coach's sentiment, after another brilliant performance down the stretch.

"The West has always been a beast," Paul said on a postgame interview on TNT. "You can't duck nobody if you're trying to win it all."

The 36-year-old tallied 26 points and seven assists in the win, with eight of those points coming in the fourth quarter alone. It's been a remarkable run of late for Paul, who is shooting 9-for-15 (60 percent) from the field and 2-for-4 (50 percent) from beyond the arc in clutch situations over the last 15 games - Phoenix are 4-0 in games decided by five points or fewer in that period.

On the other side of the court, it was a costly loss for the Trail Blazers, who are desperately trying to avoid the Play-In Tournament. Portland have won eight of their last 10 games, but sit just 0.5 ahead of the Lakers with just one regular season game against the Denver Nuggets to come.

Superstar Portland guard, Damian Lillard poured in 41 points on the night, adding five rebounds and five assists on an incredibly efficient 16-for-23 shooting. With so much on the line in the game against Denver, Lillard will have to be at his best if Portland are to avoid the Play-In Tournament.

"I wish we were playing tomorrow so we could go ahead and get it over with," Lillard said. "But the game Sunday is the most important game of the season."

Payne becoming critical piece

In his sixth season in the league, Cameron Payne has suited up for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers and now the Phoenix Suns. Flashing signs of promise, the 26-year-old guard has struggled to find the consistency that would allow him to stick.

With Phoenix, Payne is playing the best basketball of career, playing a critical rotation role on one of the league's best teams. Payne scored 11 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter, falling just shy of his season-high 24 points two games ago against the Lakers.

"I think a lot of things just come from me being aggressive," Payne said. "Just being aggressive and living with whatever comes with it."

From an uncertain future to now becoming one of the underrated stories of the season, Payne is set to be an important piece of the Suns' postseason run.

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