Devin Booker outshined by Damian Lillard, Suns fall to Blazers
PHOENIX — Don’t get me wrong — I notice the distinct talent difference between the Phoenix Suns and Portland Trail Blazers, especially when Deandre Ayton, Richaun Holmes and T.J. Warren are out injured for the Suns.
But on Thursday night, the game between the two clubs came down to one team’s superstar having a better understanding of game flow and when to “control” said game while also consistently contributing positively towards it. A masterclass of the point guard position, if you will.
Damian Lillard had 24 points for Portland, and despite Devin Booker scoring 27 for Phoenix, the Suns lost 120-106.
At the 4:25 mark of the second quarter, the Suns were up 47-43 and the Blazers were shooting under 40 percent from the field.
Lillard himself wasn’t too involved in the game up to that point, but he would soon change that.
First, he was involved in drawing two fouls to put Portland in the bonus. Lillard then set up two separate trips to the free-throw line for his center Jusuf Nurkic.
From there, Lillard converted on a layup, set up a Mo Harkless three-pointer, hit two free throws of his own and once again scored at the rim.
Lillard’s run of play in that last 3:03 of the first half outscored the Suns 12-5.
Portland had an otherwise awful first half — that included C.J. McCollum in foul trouble — but was up by four at halftime because Lillard flipped the superstar switch.
Booker is still finding that switch.
Turns out, Booker referenced that from a team-wide perspective.
“(When we’re) playing a team like that, a team that’s been together for a long time, they can have that on-and-off switch,” he said. “When they want to cut it on and lock in — we don’t have that yet.”
Booker scored 18 points in the first 10 minutes of the game, but in his second-quarter shift, he was 1-of-4 from the field with no assists and one turnover. Booker surely sensed Lillard was changing the game, forcing things in the process, but wasn’t able to answer.
As is to be expected sometimes.
Lillard is in his prime at 28 years old and has evolved from a heat-check point guard to one of the five best pick-and-roll ball-handlers on the planet. Booker is going through the same evolution as a 22-year-old two-guard and will continue to — he’s just got three years less of experience than Lillard.
It’s what makes the true superstars across the league actual superstars and why the gap between the top 15-20 players in the league and everybody else is so severe.
Lillard’s 24 points came through eight, six and 10 in the opening three quarters while Booker split his 24 in the 36 minutes as 18, four and two.
We won’t mention the fourth quarter because the Suns were down 17 less than a minute into it and the game got out of hand from there.
Booker had eight turnovers to go with three assists while Lillard had three assists and two turnovers.
The plus-minus statistic can be pointless sometimes but the difference shined through there as well. Lillard was plus-17 and Booker was minus-31.
Once again, this is not meant to come across as ill-speaking of Booker’s ability as a basketball player in any way. There’s just a different level guys can reach by snapping their fingers and Lillard has that in his back pocket nearly every night.
It’s to be determined on Booker getting to that extremely high level of expertise at his profession, but he’s certainly on pace to get there.
When Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov was asked about the difference between Booker and Lillard in the game, he cited the age gap as well.
“I would say in about seven years [Booker is] gonna be even better than Damian. With all respect to Damian — I love his game,” he said. “I don’t think [Lillard] had that kind of poise, when it comes to managing the game, I don’t think he was the same player when he was at the age of 21.”
In the loss, Booker reached 5,000 career points, becoming the fifth-youngest player to reach that accomplishment.
Booker has been racking up these types of accolades for his age and he’s over it.
“I don’t care anymore,” he said. “It’s like 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 — it’s almost the same thing. Now I’m just at the point in my career where I just want to be a winner.
“I’ve done the individual accolades countless numbers of times so for me now it’s figuring out how to win and we’re not doing that right now so until we start winning that’s when all those things will matter to me.”
That’s the type of mentality that will get him to the level Kokoskov envisions.
— Kokoskov said before the game Warren could miss 2-3 weeks due to a bone bruise on his right ankle. The ankle has already forced Warren to miss five games after injuring it on Nov. 27 against Indiana. Josh Jackson started in Warren’s place.
— Starting point guard De’Anthony Melton exited the game in the early third quarter with a right ankle sprain and did not return. With Ayton not participating in shootaround on Thursday, the Suns could very well be down three starters in Denver on Friday night.
The Suns traveled straight to Denver after the game as they prepare to take on the Nuggets on Friday at 7 p.m. You can listen to the action live on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.