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Devin Booker’s 59-point outing brings curious criticism of Suns

The Phoenix Suns bench reaches for guard Devin Booker (1) as he leaves during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz on Monday, March 25, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

PHOENIX — Scoring a career-high 70 points two years and a day before Monday night provided Suns guard Devin Booker with a unique perspective following a 59-point outburst against the Utah Jazz.

It allowed him to shrug.

He’s had nights like this before, when a large deficit and injuries to several key teammates put him in attack mode early and led to a massive point total late.

Booker produced the second-highest scoring game of his career Tuesday in the 125-92 loss in Salt Lake City. Yet things this statistically historic in nature are trivial to him at this point in his career and in the context of playing for a 17-58 Suns team.

“Honestly, every time I go out there … I don’t put it past myself,” he said Tuesday. “I feel like a lot of games I’ve started off hot early and then went home and was like, ‘Yo, that could’ve been a 50-point night. Missed a lot of easy ones, a lot of free throws.’

“If you talk to the true scorers in this league … I’m sure they felt the same. It’s just a matter of it actually happening.”

Booker hit 16 of 17 foul shots and went 19-of-34 from the field as he attempted to keep Phoenix afloat against a playoff-bound Utah team. He hit five threes and added four assists in 41 minutes.

A day later, ESPN’s daily talk shows questioned the Suns’ tactics to get Booker 59 points, just as they did when he dropped 70 in Boston aided with intentional fouling by his teammates. Stephen A. Smith used the accomplishment to ask if Booker will want out of the bad situation in Phoenix.

Even Suns fans argued on Twitter about the game’s merits.

Booker has surely seen that national media reaction after putting together a statistically — and visually — incredible individual performance before.

On Tuesday, Booker spent time on the training table as Phoenix took a day off to rest with a game against Washington on deck Wednesday.

It was back to business as usual, not that Booker and the Suns don’t see the significance of his big game.

“I read a lot of the stats,” Booker said. “I don’t think it’s something I’ll appreciate or anyone will appreciate until my career’s over. I’m just taking it day by day, like I said, just trying to get better — get better at what I do every day and try to change this franchise around and get it back to where it’s supposed to be.”

Regardless of his thoughts or that of fans and pundits, the stats are eye-popping.

Booker is just the sixth player in history to surpass 59 points twice, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Elgin Baylor and James Harden.

His 59 points were 64 percent of his team’s total for the game, fifth-most for a single game in NBA history and trailing just George Mikan (three times) and Kobe Bryant (once), according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Don’t those things mean something?

Booker and Suns coach Igor Kokoskov didn’t mind that they were thwarted trying to reach an arbitrary goal of getting him 60 points. Utah coach Quin Snyder called for an intentional foul of Suns guard De’Anthony Melton with seconds left just to keep Booker away from the 60-point mark.

The Suns weren’t even sure whether to keep Booker on the court as he shot past 50 points in the fourth quarter. With 5:12 remaining and Booker having piled up 56 points, Kokoskov benched him with the game out of hand.

But some pressing by the coaching staff and players, especially Jamal Crawford, led to the head coach reinserting Booker to go after the 60-point mark with just fewer than 3 minutes left.

“It was collective decision. Obviously, I have to make final decision but we were all on the same page,” Kokoskov said.

No harm done.

Due to injuries, the Suns were down starters Tyler Johnson, T.J. Warren and Kelly Oubre Jr., plus reserve Josh Jackson. They lost backup center Richaun Holmes midgame after he picked up two quick technicals.

They started two 22-year-olds, a 21-year-old and two 20-year-olds; and played five rookies 13 minutes or more, each.

Phoenix shot just 41 percent, and none of Booker’s teammates managed double-figures.

Expecting things could go just like that, Booker admitted he entered the game ultra-aggressively. He said it was just another game — another game where he felt like he had to carry that heavy of a load.

“When you’re missing people like Kelly, Tyler, T.J., those guys are 20-point scorers, 25-point scorers,” he said. “We have a lot of young players who are getting a lot of playing time that haven’t been thrown in the fire yet, so it’s their first time around.

“Whatever I can do to help take the pressure off of them and make the game easier, that’s what I try to do.”

Complain about point-chasing if you choose.

It means something that Booker and Kokoskov want to throw a few more punches this season without fear of a bad draft lottery result or injury.

And it doesn’t change the fact that a 22-year-old is on a handful of lists with Mikan, Michael, Kobe and Wilt.

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