Devin Booker gets help before closing out Suns’ 4th straight win of bubble
Devin Booker has spent years playing against defenses focusing everything on him, playing dozens of games in which opponents tried to take him out of it.
That got the 23-year-old ready for stretch runs with the Phoenix Suns like this where he needed to take over in multiple ways and win the biggest games of his career thus far.
The difference between then and now is he was used to not getting much help while trying to do so.
He couldn’t even be on the floor when he needed it the most on Thursday against the Indiana Pacers, picking up his fifth foul with 8:24 left in the third quarter.
It was a huge mistake by the Suns’ star, trying to take a charge with four fouls already, and now his most monumental contest yet was out his hands by his own doing.
Ricky Rubio and Deandre Ayton exited soon after for required rest, leaving it to a second unit that has been the Suns’ number one crutch all season long.
Momentum seemed to be leaning the Pacers’ way, with Indiana taking a two-point lead before a timeout. It seemed fitting this is the way the Cinderella run would end before it even got going, and if you had to guess, this would have been how. A young team making too many mistakes and the bench giving up a lead.
Instead, backup point guard Cam Payne, who was signed in the start of July, led a 23-3 surge over a 4:25 span. He scored 12 of his 15 points with an assist while Dario Saric added the other 11 of his 16 points. Phoenix improbably had the advantage again, similarly to the most bizarre win of the year on Sunday against the Mavericks.
Booker knew what to do from there. He entered the game with 8:08 left and a seven-point lead, going on to either assist or score 12 of the Suns’ next 14 points for a 114-99 Phoenix win.
“I feel like my game developed a lot the last three years for being in those situations,” Booker said. “But what’s honestly taking the load off me is (a) collective team effort.”
Seven Suns players scored in double figures, making it another balanced scoring attack and hard-working performance by the Suns that overcame 9-for-34 (26.5%) shooting from three-point range.
Booker finished with 20 points on 6-of-12 shooting with three rebounds and 10 assists.
The 12 points via Booker in the fourth came after a mid-range make by Mikal Bridges, which was a 12-5 self-made run over 3:43 of the fourth quarter that made it a 15-point Suns cushion with under four minutes left.
That’s the fourth straight game Booker has closed things out. It was two crunch-time 7-0 runs in wins over Washington and Dallas, followed by the last three buckets of the win over the Clippers.
He’s got spacing in shooting from Cam Johnson (39.6 3P%), Bridges (38.1 3P% since mid-January) and Rubio (50.0 3P% in Orlando), with the gravity of Ayton rolling inside.
“It looks like a lot of spacing, and then when you have got a dominant presence like Deandre down there rolling it’s gonna force rotation,” Booker said. “We say pick your poison.”
In something that was represented in the win over the Clippers with Booker’s buzzer-beater, this has served as a week where Booker can showcase what he’s been doing for quite a while.
“This is how that young man plays all the time and everybody is just getting a chance to see it now,” Williams said. “I think it’s like an announcement to the rest of the world who wasn’t paying attention to him.”
Again, the change has been him getting the secondary performances NBA stars need most of the time, and Booker would have never been in that spot had it not been for the defensive assistance he got as well.
Ayton had four blocks and made a handful of impact plays defensively, while Bridges was tremendous defending T.J. Warren, limiting the former Sun to 7-of-20 shooting after he was averaging nearly 40 points per game in the bubble.
Ayton had a handful of brainfarts throughout the game, but it was a different type of performance where the 22-year-old made his presence felt on the game. He had a team-high 23 points with 10 rebounds, one assist and two steals on top of the four blocks.
A ginormous two-possession swing during that 12-5 Booker run started when Ayton blocked a shot on one end before Booker found him coming back down the court.
Ayton giving that little boost to Booker’s end-of-game mission was so critical in a game where the Pacers started to grab some control back, and it will continue to be critical in the future.
Booker has been in more than a few of these close games in the fourth quarter over his career, where it’s clear that he needs to be the best player in the gym and take care of business.
As he said, though, there’s that “load” taken off him now where he simply looks more comfortable taking over through more of a support system and his own past experience.
Booker rarely doesn’t make the extra pass, but he made it a point to look off Rubio here after the Ayton dunk to get an open three-pointer for himself to add to the 12-5 spurt.
Williams looks fine with giving Booker the keys as “Point Book” to close up shop at the end of games, and all he’s done with that responsibility thus far is lead his team to a 4-0 start in Orlando.
The NBA has its next great closer.