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Struggles for ‘step slow’ Booker continue, Suns fall to Thunder

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

PHOENIX — Phoenix Suns shooting guard Devin Booker has become a prolific scorer so quickly in his career that it’s sometimes hard to realize how good he’s become until he has runs like he has this past week.

With Booker’s 16 points on 5-of-16 shooting in a 110-100 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Booker has now scored under 20 points in four straight games. That’s the first time in a full 82 games that has happened during the young career of the 22-year-old, a stretch of games in March of 2017 two seasons ago.

Booker is still clearly lacking explosion and burst as he works his way back from a left hamstring strain. That is being even further handicapped by the fact teams are game planning their defenses around containing him and Booker is running the offense most of the time he is out there.

He’s still able to be a playmaker to help his team, reaching a career-high 12 assists on Saturday night for the second game in a row, but he’s just not the same player at this point in time.

“I’m a step slow right now so getting everybody else involved is my go-to right now,” Booker said unprompted when asked about his playmaking the last two games.

Because of all the eyes on Booker and his limited movement, he’s much more predictable to defenders and has to rely on defensive breakdowns and occasional slipups to get great scoring chances. It’s honestly a credit to Booker’s shot-making ability that he’s even managed 15 points per game in his last four outings.

Further evidence on this outside of the eye test is Booker’s free throw shooting. He took four on Saturday night, making it 11 total free throw attempts in the last four games. In the eight games prior to this four-game run, Booker averaged 6.9 trips to the foul line a game.

Booker shot 43.2 percent from the field last season and in the eight games he has played since missing three due to the hamstring problem, he’s reached or eclipsed 42-percent shooting just once.

When asked about his hamstring, Booker said he thinks “it’ll be fine” but “it’s a thing that takes time and just getting back used to it and trusting it.”

If he’s hurting, he’s certainly not telling his coach.

“He doesn’t talk to me, he’s never complaining,” head coach Igor Kokoskov said when asked about Booker’s movement. “He doesn’t want to say anything. He wants to be on the court, he wants to help his teammates. He’s trying to win.”

Booker’s struggles make a 63-point second half of scoring for the Thunder (10-5) too unsustainable for the Suns (3-12) offense to match.

To Booker’s credit, he’s benefitting his team the best he can in other areas. He’s averaging over nine assists a game in his last four.

The scoring support was there to help Booker, just not enough to cancel out a poor defensive second half.

Deandre Ayton had 21 points on a career-high 19 field goal attempts to go along with nine rebounds.

After a slow start for T.J. Warren, he made six of his last seven shots to finish with 23 points on 10-of-19 shooting. He has scored at least 20 points in five straight games.

Mikal Bridges had 14 points, two rebounds, two assists, four steals and two blocks, becoming the first Suns player since December of 2015 to record at least four steals and two blocks in a game.

The rookie has played very well in the starting lineup through two games while Trevor Ariza is away from the team due to personal reasons.

“[He’s] going to be a really, really good player,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said of Bridges.

Even with some of those good individual performances, the Suns will have to be a better defensive team to win on nights when Booker can’t get his scoring going.

That’s the small-scale outlook from one game, but on a grander scale, the Suns at least competed for the second game in a row.

“I can’t say that we didn’t compete but we have to [be a little more] smarter,” Koksokov said after the game.

BENDER PLAYS

For the first time this season, Dragan Bender got legitimate playing time.

The former No. 4 pick in 2016 was out of the rotation all season but played ahead of Ryan Anderson off the bench on his birthday.

While Bender made a nice defensive play here and there, he shot 0-for-2 and had his fair share of plays looking lost on the floor in seven total minutes.

The Suns declined the fourth-year option on Bender’s contract, making him an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

UP NEXT

The Suns go on the road for four games, beginning with the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday. The action starts at 5 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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