Suns: How Devin Booker took Phoenix’s temporary point guard vacancy and ran with it
With so much of the Phoenix Suns’ victory over the LA Clippers on Sunday running through Devin Booker, it might be surprising, if not shocking, to find that his first assist didn’t come until the second quarter. Furthermore, that after dishing out two in a matter of possessions, his third didn’t come until there were 63 ticks left in the first half. No layoff followed that dime; the remaining eight came in regular intervals, not incessantly as the jumpers he refused to miss but certainly as frequent as the rebounds he continued to pull down.
All in all, he tuned up the shorthanded Clippers with a spellbinding, superstar-level triple-double performance – 40 points on 52/43/100 shooting splits, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists – and led his shorthanded Suns to a win in the opening game of the Western Conference Finals.
And he did it all as the team’s point guard.
The Suns‘ 120-114 win gave them their first win in a conference finals series since 2010, when the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers ousted them four games to two, with less tribulation than that series logline may hint at. Booker’s night was even more historic: his triple-double was the first of his career, the sixth in the team’s playoff history, and he’s only the second Suns player ever with a 40-point triple-double in the playoffs (the other was Charles Barkley).
Beyond records that involve triple-doubles alone, Booker is the fourth player in NBA history to lead both teams outright in points, rebounds, and assists in a Conference Finals game. The three others list like a public speaking class’s “have three celebrities of your choice over for dinner” prompt: LeBron James, Larry Bird, and Bill Russell.
Devin Booker’s best (and most complete) performance came at the perfect time: with his point guard Chris Paul out, and the Phoenix Suns in need of one.
There’s the fact that Devin Booker did this at all, and then there’s the fact that he did it without Chris Paul by his side. Paul remains in the league’s health and safety protocols despite reportedly being “symptom-free” after testing positive for COVID-19 (also reportedly, if you elect to put the same faith that you put into Adrian Wojnarowski into Jalen Rose, Paul is vaccinated). While Booker is no slouch when it comes to manning an offense – he was all-but forced to do it for the first five seasons of his career when the closest thing to a point guard in Phoenix was the unfortunate presence of Eric Bledsoe – you’d rather have the Point God run the show.
Paul’s ability to play traffic cop is one of the principal reasons Phoenix has reached this point, a juggernaut-looking offensive force of a two seed in the Western Conference Finals, where no one saw them being when the season began. But without him, it doesn’t exactly look like they’re lost.
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Led by Booker’s 11 assists and further bolstered by a quality nine dimes from backup-turned-starter Cameron Payne, the Suns seem to be primed to succeed without pause on the offensive end for as long as Paul is out. While the distinction and the relative novelty of Booker’s triple-double boasts the brightest sheen, his consistency as a creator for his teammates might be the most vital of his endless skills moving forward.
Whether or not he can score at will or go bucket-for-bucket with the likes of Paul George or any player left in these playoffs, for that matter, will never be questioned. But when he was still being hit with the foolish “empty stats” criticisms, his distribution abilities did come with caveats. Could he find teammates after driving into a crowded lane? Or would he rather put up an ill-advised, contested floater just for the sake of testing the typically indefectible “I’m Devin Booker, a brilliant scorer who can make any and every shot” theory? He shed any remaining demons of that ilk on Sunday.
When Booker drives, the defense is bound to collapse because there is so much truth to that exact theory. As one of the most prolific scorers in the league, he’s a terrifying draw on the perimeter and is growing into an equally terrifying presence close to the hoop. He uses the backboard like Kobe Bryant and dominates the midrange like, well, Chris Paul – he went 13-for-18 on jumpers off the dribble per Second Spectrum, the most made jumpers of that variety in Second Spectrum’s tracking history (since 2013-14). His willingness to dish, coupled with his vision to find the best option for a kick out, makes for a defensive death sentence.
By my count, eight of Booker’s 11 assists saw the defense collapse on him – or, better yet, saw every single Clipper turn their attention his way. When this happens, one or more Suns players is going to be open. There are no “might be” or “possibly” qualifiers here. They will have space, and time to decide what to do with said space upon catching Booker’s pass. It bears repeating, not just for you, dear reader, but for any defense that might be taking notes: Booker is an impossible cover, but plugging five defenders into the paint to deter his shot will only set up someone else’s.
Though there was no real rhyme or reason to playing one-on-one defense on Booker, Terance Mann spent the most time defending the star of the night (a whopping five minutes and two seconds, per NBA tracking stats). During that time, Booker scored 16 points, and the Suns scored 45. Booker shot 64 percent and handed out two assists, too. He didn’t have a single turnover when Mann defended him (though that’s not saying much. The only two Clippers to pry the ball out of Booker’s hands were Patrick Beverley and Rajon Rondo, the prime suspects to pull such a feat off).
Paul George, on the other hand, spent just over one minute guarding Devin Booker. Because of his length and hand size, a gift he used to its full potential against the Jazz to the tune of six steals in the series, perhaps it’s in Ty Lue’s best interest to place his best available player on his Suns’ counterpart.
Or perhaps they’re playing a waiting game, hoping that Kawhi Leonard can return from his knee injury in time to save the series in his prime lockdown form. (Author’s note: This plan is unlikely and ridiculous, given the fact that even if Kawhi Leonard can return – which, if he has an ACL injury, he probably shouldn’t – Booker won’t hesitate to expose Leonard’s hampered explosiveness by doing exactly what he did in Game 1.)
Whatever the plan is, if the Clippers plan to make this a longer series than the Denver Nuggets could do one round ago, it has to be more defined. That sweep, to some, felt like a fluke. After one game of a Conference Finals series, you’d think those tunes would be changing. These Suns aren’t any old upstart squad looking to scrap their way to an unlikely title. They are a legitimate juggernaut with two players capable of scoring or assisting on 43 of their team’s final 50 points – one of them did exactly that in Game 1, and the other one will return at some point in the series. This is the stuff of nightmares.
After the game as he and Deandre Ayton ventured through the tunnel and toward their locker room, Booker held a phone with Chris Paul on the other end. An excited Ayton shouted, “You seen them 11 assists, right? You seen him throw out 11 dimes, right?” Booker laughed, and I assume CP3 did, too. Everyone saw him throw out 11 dimes. Given the chance, it’s highly likely they see him temporarily take up the Point God mantle and do it again, too.
At some point, if not already, Devin Booker will need and deserve his own mantle.