Devin Booker evolves into superstar form, Suns take Game 1 vs. Clippers
PHOENIX — How do you define what a superstar is?
One thing that comes to mind is a player that is scheme-proof, making the defensive gameplan more of a choice on what to limit as opposed to what to deny.
Another is showing up on the big stage, performing the best when the stakes are the highest.
But most of all, with that, it’s that superstar’s play being an embodiment of their team’s identity, one of the truest signs of leadership.
Check all three boxes for Phoenix Suns shooting guard Devin Booker.
For a game missing two superstars in Los Angeles Clippers wing Kawhi Leonard (knee) and Suns point guard Chris Paul (health and safety protocols), Booker let everyone know there was a third present and accounted for.
Booker had 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists and shot 15-of-29 in a 120-114 win for the Suns over the Clippers in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. His 40-point triple-double was the third ever in the history of the NBA’s conference finals, the first triple-double of any kind for Booker’s career.
“I liked the way Devin did it,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “He didn’t inject himself into the game, he just did it out of what we do.”
With the Clippers starting the game small and using a switch-heavy defense, the Suns were going to be able to beat Los Angeles by playing to their style of 0.5, making quick decisions with the ball and keeping up the player movement.
Booker led that charge. Along with those 11 assists, he had four hockey assists and could have had a handful more if not for Phoenix misses.
He watched every Clippers game in the first two rounds, observing how Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic and Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell were defended by Los Angeles. It gave Booker and his team a pretty good indication of how they would be attacked.
“With a small-ball lineup, they’re gonna switch a lot of actions, they’re gonna run and hit and double,” Booker said. “It’s kinda hard to time it because they do it randomly, but I trust my teammates. It’s easy to get off the ball and have somebody else make the play.”
As expected with these two teams, Williams described it as a “wrestling match” of sorts in the first half, one the Suns led by three after.
That’s where Williams liked seeing the game open up more for his team, and particularly Booker.
“It was just him. He was making the right passes tonight,” Williams said of Booker. “When he gets downhill, he knows where the reads are. He can either get to the basket or try to find DA in the pocket.”
Booker in the second half scored or assisted 49 of the Suns’ 63 points, notching hockey assists on six of those points he wasn’t involved in statiscallty.
“It’s just reading the game, from beginning to end,” Booker said. “It’s the playoffs, teams are going to make adjustments, teams are going to throw different defenses at you. The preparation with our team and our coaching staff, I feel like we’re ready for any type of defense we see.”
The Clippers for a moment looked to have the fourth superstar in Paul George. He scored 32 points through the third quarter, and along with 16-of-33 three-point shooting as a team, it was keeping Los Angeles in the game.
At 3:45 left in the third quarter, the Clippers took their biggest lead of the game, a six-point advantage.
After a Suns timeout, that’s where Booker really started taking over. In the final 3:09 of the period, Booker tallied 12 points and had the hockey assist on Torrey Craig’s 3, a surge that had the game tied through three quarters.
From there, one side ran out of steam and the other didn’t.
George recorded only two points in the fourth quarter and the Clippers shot 4-of-14 from there, all while Booker just kept on chugging.
Booker posted 11 points, six rebounds and five assists in just the fourth quarter alone. After a Cam Johnson dunk with 8:08 remaining, Booker scored or assisted on the Suns’ final 15 points.
And when the Suns were up four with nine seconds left and the Clippers’ Nic Batum missed a three-pointer, guess who grabbed the rebound. Aye, it was Booker.
As the Suns showed in their own right when they were switching on defense and struggling to finish some possessions, the Clippers were vulnerable on rotations and scrambles off dribble penetration.
Phoenix had 31 assists and only seven turnovers off that.
Cam Payne, starting in place of Paul, began the game 1-of-5 from the field and looking out of sorts before stabilizing to 11 points and nine assists. He seemed to find his mojo and court vision in the second quarter, something he credited to being able to sit on the bench and assess the game after his first shift, as he would normally do at the beginning of it in his reserve role.
Payne did a great job of finding Deandre Ayton, who did well in being ready for passes around the basket and finishing with authority on dives. Ayton had 20 points and nine rebounds on 10-of-14 shooting.
Williams shouted out Mikal Bridges for being solid on rapid decisions while also being patient. The Suns’ success in 0.5 wouldn’t be possible without Bridges (14 points), Jae Crowder (13 points) and Cam Johnson (12 points) making the right play 99 times out of 100 when they have space to make things happen.
As the song by Lupe Fiasco goes, “If you are what you say you are, a superstar, then have no fear, the camera’s here.”
Booker has always exuded the confidence of being a superstar, even long before he was one at the start of his professional career.
That part was never missing. It was waiting on if we were going to see him become one.
In Booker’s first postseason, we are.