Suns’ Devin Booker emphatically shuts door on 76ers after early struggles

Apr 21, 2021, 9:04 PM | Updated: Apr 22, 2021, 8:07 am

Phoenix Suns' Devin Booker reacts after making a basket during the second half of an NBA basketball...

Phoenix Suns' Devin Booker reacts after making a basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

“That’s why Book is who he is.”

Through three quarters, second-year Philadelphia 76ers wing Matisse Thybulle was doing the best job that we’ve ever seen anyone do defending Phoenix Suns All-Star guard Devin Booker.

Booker was 3-of-10 from the field, with Thybulle blocking his jumper twice and not giving Booker much room to breathe. Along with the extra defensive attention from help defenders that Booker is used to, he was having a rough go.

But as Chris Paul said above, Booker played “winning basketball” in the last two minutes to make plays and close up shop when he needed to in a 116-113 road win Wednesday over the Philadelphia 76ers.

Booker had 19 points, eight of them in the last 2:03 when the Suns started up six. It was the return of the bad man that solidified himself in the bubble as one of the game’s premier closers, going on self-created runs to slam a door shut that was still leaking through some daylight for the 76ers.

His spurt was matched by the 76ers, a 9-8 advantage for Philly, but Booker was the reason the 76ers never got within three points with possession until the last play of the game.

The first bucket came just inside the three-point line, where Booker used a screen from Deandre Ayton to get enough separation from George Hill.

Again, Suns head coach Monty Williams brought a screen for Booker, this time at the elbow from Ayton.

The screen by Ayton got a piece of Thybulle, who was in a bad spot recovering back, and Booker took advantage with a beautiful, patient touch shot to extend the lead back to six.

After Embiid quickly answered, the Suns rebounded a Paul miss, and off the inbound it was all Booker’s shot.

He perhaps thought the 76ers were going to foul, and went all the way from the right corner to the left wing before going back to the right corner to hit the dagger.

He waved both fingers at the 76ers bench letting them know better luck next time.

“It don’t matter if he’s 0-for-20, I still believe his next shots are going to going in,” Mikal Bridges said of Booker.

“He made the timely shots, he still wants it,” Paul said.

After that Booker shot, the 76ers hit another 3, Booker made both his free throws, the 76ers countered again with a 3 and then Paul was at the line with the Suns leading by two and 0.8 seconds left.

Paul buried the first, and with a three-point lead, he intended to make the second.

He missed, Embiid grabbed the rebound, flung it 80 feet at the opposing basket and the ball went in-and-out for nearly the most incredible play of the NBA season.

“Just one of those things that could have made for a really long flight, long night and not a lot of sleep,” Williams said.

Booker ended the night with seven assists too, as Thybulle did a great job making him turn down shots and the 76ers defense kept coming off shooters to give Booker less room as well.

The win for the Suns came against a 76ers team missing three starters: Seth Curry, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris.

With that information presented, you might assume this was another instance of the Suns playing down to their competition, but it was a fine all-around effort.

They did a terrific job on Embiid, forcing him into eight of the Sixers’ 16 turnovers. A lot of that was Ayton, who had a second straight game of doing a great job limiting an MVP-caliber opponent.

This is the part where we get to Embiid still having 38 points and 17 rebounds because he’s a superstar and an absolutely unstoppable force.

“I thought DA made it really tough on him, he’s just an unreal player,” Williams said of Embiid.

“Jo is tough. He’s so tough. He can score in every way possible,” Paul added, also saying Ayton did a great job competing.

The Suns at times fronted Embiid and also switched Ayton off on ball screens, throwing different looks at Philadelphia’s lone reliable offensive option with those key players out.

Phoenix was good at swarming Embiid as best as any team could hope for when he starts dribbling toward the basket.

It’s unfair to mention Paul this late, because his 28 points and eight assists kept the Suns in it. While it was a good win where the Suns played well, it’s not in their top-10 efforts of the season, but it was one of those nights where Paul wasn’t going to allow his team to lose.

Paul scored five points in each of the opening quarters before eight in the third and 10 in the fourth. He also didn’t have a turnover, continuing this absurd run he is on in April now of having 102 assists and only 13 turnovers in his last 11 games.

The buckets from Paul were the extra bit of shot-making the team needed while Booker struggled, and he and his supporting cast all hit timely shots to keep the Sixers close and never allow them to lead by more than two in the second half.

Cam Johnson scored 15 points, replacing an injured Jae Crowder in the second half, and Bridges added 18 points, four rebounds, an assist, two steals and two blocks. Those two were outstanding all game, and Phoenix is a different team when that’s the case.

Jevon Carter was hesitating a bit in the first three quarters, bringing back his quote from two weeks ago when he said everyone, from the coaching to training staff, tells him to shoot the ball.

He locked in on that in the fourth, converting on a trio of 3s in under three minutes for all nine of his points.

“Our guys were upset with JC when he turned down a few shots and then he got it going in the corner and it was awesome to see our guys rally around him knocking down those shots,” Williams said.

The Sixers got those types of contributions too, which is ultimately why this was a back-and-forth affair instead of the Suns leading by 10-plus throughout. Danny Green (18 points), Tyrese Maxey (14), Furkan Korkmaz (12) and Hill (11) were all in double figures for Philadelphia.

Dario Saric continued to look out of sorts for the Suns, especially on defense, where he committed five fouls in 18 minutes.

It has gotten to the point the last few weeks where Williams might have to consider a change, whether that’s the return of Frank Kaminsky into the rotation or going small with a forward at the 5. That’s a really, really tough decision for Williams to make, as you would think he wants to use this time to get Saric right again before the playoffs. But when is the right time to bail on that and let the alternative use that time to find a flow instead?

Ayton had 10 points, five rebounds, two steals and two blocks. He did well on Embiid, and while his big-impact performance wasn’t there elsewhere in the first three quarters, he made a few huge plays in the fourth, including an offensive rebound that led to that first shot Booker hit on that eight-point surge.

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