DAN BICKLEY

Suns’ Devin Booker must teach himself on the fly to see past the mask

Jun 25, 2021, 5:19 PM
Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns adjusts his face guard during warm-ups before the start of game...
Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns adjusts his face guard during warm-ups before the start of game three of the Western Conference Finals against the LA Clippers at Staples Center on June 24, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES – After Game 3, Devin Booker shut the curtains. He said his nose is fine. He said the mask is not an issue. He conceded nothing to Patrick Beverley, whose defensive wizardry and dirty tactics seem to have stopped a locomotive in its tracks.

This is not surprising.

Book doesn’t believe in showing weaknesses. Head coach Monty Williams said the Suns star was tickled to show his toughness by returning with a stitched-up nose in Game 2 after he was bloodied by a headbutt from Beverley on a reckless hustle play.

But things were different then. That was before a mask entered the narrative.

That was before undergoing a nasty medical procedure to reset his broken nose, an experience Booker chose to illuminate after Thursday’s loss.

“That was probably the worst part,” Booker said. “It was a procedure that they usually say they put you under (anesthesia) for. But we had a flight out a couple hours later. So they just numbed it up all over the place, like eight shots to numb it up.

“Then they go in there, and they put it back. They break it again. They break it back in place. That was my first time experiencing that. But they said Cam Johnson went through it, so I knew I could.”

Booker’s punchline drew laughter. It was a fascinating window in Johnson’s place on this team, a player who mysteriously broke his nose in practice earlier this season.

It also sounds like a traumatic turn of events for Booker, illustrating the extensive, needless damage Beverley caused to Booker’s nose and how he might do it all over again if allowed.

Ditch the mask and there’s a clear risk of being targeted by Beverley or a flying elbow from Marcus Morris Sr. Then what?

The mask is such an issue that Booker felt compelled to call Richard “Rip” Hamilton for advice, the lethal Detroit Pistons scorer who shined while wearing a protective mask, almost allowing him to slip into a villainous character and emerge as an NBA Finals hero.

During the press briefing, Booker called Hamilton “my favorite player of all-time.” Then he thanked Hamilton for putting him “in the right mindset,” which wasn’t exactly reflected in Booker’s ragged performance.

But Hamilton might have been a bad comparison. His face was angular. His mask seemed to hang differently. Pooling sweat never seemed to be an issue.

The media also asked Chris Paul about his experience wearing a mask in 2012 following a nasal fracture. Paul acted as if he couldn’t remember the experience at all, proof of how much the Suns want to mute this conversation, to show no weakness, to diminish the implications of Booker’s injury.

The truth: Maybe it’s not an issue when Booker is hoisting up shots in practice. But it’s a different story inside the maelstrom of playoff competition, and in Game 3, Booker was caught frequently fidgeting with his faceguard; and struggling with the physicality and proximity of Beverley, who has forced 10 Booker turnovers since emerging as a Game 2 starter.

We all believed Booker crossed an important threshold after a majestic 40-point triple-double in Game 1. We all believed he would never be disrespected again. Instead, he gets a broken face and earfuls of trash from Beverley. And now he must teach himself on the fly to see past the mask, like the netting at a baseball stadium.

It’s proof that the adversity never stops in the NBA playoffs. Like now, when you’re 10 rungs up and the ladder begins to shake.

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Suns’ Devin Booker must teach himself on the fly to see past the mask