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Booker magnificent in return, Suns beginning to gel in win over T-Wolves

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) high-fives fans as he leaves the court following a 107-99 victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves during an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns couldn’t reach 100 points in four of the six games they were without Devin Booker.

With his return on Saturday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Booker proved really how much he means to the Suns.

Booker was magnificent in his first game back after re-aggravating his left hamstring, posting 28 points, seven rebounds and seven assists on 16 shots in a 107-99 win.

The most impressive part of Booker’s performance is that he played the game like a veteran point guard. Booker rarely kicked it up to gear four or five in his pace of play, an expected adjustment for his first game back.

Even though his conditioning was not 100 percent back, as head coach Igor Kokoskov and Booker noted after the game, Booker’s health was according to the man himself. That’s a big sigh of relief for Suns fans who have seen their young star push himself back too quickly from injuries a time or three.

“I feel great, this is the best I’ve felt all season,” Booker said. “Kept saying that before I came back I wanted to be 100 percent healthy. I’ve been playing through injuries all year.

“Just wanted to make sure I was fully ready to go this time.”

Booker is an expert at putting his defender “in jail” after going through a ball screen and he’s an outstanding shot-maker.

Patient plays like this are something Booker has in his locker, but he relied on it even more against Minnesota to big-time success.

Getting his fair share of points from catch-and-shoot designed off-ball plays, cuts to the basket and free throws, Booker only had two or three strong challenges and takes to the rim where he really pushed his hamstring to the limit.

Booker rarely using his turbo button in a masterful scoring outing is a scary proposition to the rest of the league once a healthy Booker gets back in his groove.

That’s a credit to the level of scorer Booker is at his age and the strides he has taken as “Point Book.”

When you have a star player have a night that Booker had, a well-balanced team performance will push you over the edge most nights to a win.

That’s what the Suns had Saturday, with 30 assists and only 15 turnovers.

“If we find and cover the spots we’re talking about and we’re in good spacing, we have a lot of good shooters and if we play unselfishly — we move the ball — we’re gonna have the 30 assists,” Kokoskov said.

Most importantly, the team didn’t completely deflate when Booker was resting. Up two at the start of the fourth quarter, Phoenix went on an 11-2 run in the first five minutes.

Booker had played 31 minutes already so that allowed him to get an extra couple of minutes on the bench. In the past this season, we’ve seen Kokoskov forced to rush Booker out there earlier than he wanted before the game slipped away.

He was afforded that luxury against the Timberwolves and it paid off.

The Suns are slowly gelling together positive team basketball habits in a way we haven’t seen in the past couple of years.

Rookies De’Anthony Melton and Mikal Bridges provide tremendous defensive length and instincts. Josh Jackson and Richaun Holmes bring the reckless energy and toughness off the bench.

Eventually, their play forces others who aren’t suited as strongly in those departments to ramp up their defensive effort or overall energy a couple notches.

We’ve seen it with Deandre Ayton in the past week. Even after getting into foul trouble and his opposing center Karl-Anthony Towns scoring 21 points in the first half, Ayton didn’t get down on himself.

He came back out in the second half and played some of the best overall basketball of his very short NBA career to this point, especially in the late moments of the game.

“He was huge defensively, covering space, covering the rim and his presence in the paint was huge in crunch time,” Koksokov said of Ayton.

Booker was also a present-minded participator on defense, where his increase in engagement is noticeable, and both Jamal Crawford and T.J. Warren are at least trying to cover up their biggest weaknesses as defenders like Booker too.

Koksokov noted the deflection stat for the second time this week, with the Suns reaching 19 in the game. He also said the team made second-half adjustments well, and while it wasn’t with marksman-like precision, the effort was at least there.

“I’m not saying searching or changing (an) identity, but it’s got to start with the defensive stops,” Koksokov said after the game. “If you don’t have defensive stops, you put so much pressure on your half-court offense.”

Those players mentioned adds up to eight and nearly all of the rotation. If Kelly Oubre is a member of the team on Monday, his tenacity makes it nine and if Austin Rivers can find his form from last season in Los Angeles, that’s a full group of 10.

It’s a pretty over-the-top proclamation when you consider the Suns’ victory meant they improved to a record of 6-24 and it was the team’s first winning streak in 351 days.

But sometimes it takes time for these things to click, especially with a first-year head coach and a remodeled roster full of youth.

Time will tell over the next couple of games if this is all a mirage. Oubre and Rivers will have to settle in if the agreed-upon deal goes through and the Suns have had somewhat similar stretches this season.

The difference is this team, for the most part, has figured out its rotations, everyone’s role within that rotation and is finally healthy.

The team chemistry is high, players are feeding off each other’s energy and young players are becoming more confident while adapting to professional hoops.

What better way to see the if this is actual progress than a five-game road trip?

The big fella believes we will continue to see it.

“You (are) going to keep seeing effort,” Ayton said.

“Two games in a row, we know why we’re winning. It’s just coming together, playing as a team, having fun and just showing a lot of effort is becoming normal.”

That road trip kicks off on Monday in New York against the Knicks at 5:30 p.m. on Monday. You can hear the game on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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