EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Devin Booker thrives as ‘Point Book’ in Suns’ 1st game, win without Chris Paul
Feb 24, 2022, 10:09 PM | Updated: 10:11 pm
(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
The thing about Phoenix Suns shooting guard Devin Booker that goes over most people’s heads is how much he grew as a player during those tumultuous years full of losing at the start of his career.
Along with Booker seeing every type of defense a team could throw at him by his third season, he spent some time running the show as well. For stretches of a season under Igor Kokoskov in which the Suns didn’t really have a point guard, Booker had to be that guy, and he was occasionally the defacto primary initiator alongside Ricky Rubio the following year as well.
That type of know-how doesn’t just go away, and with Chris Paul out for the foreseeable future, Booker put it to use in an electric return back from the dead for Point Book in Phoenix’s 124-104 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“Helped out a lot,” Booker said of that early experience as a floor general. “I always credit my early years in the league, even my first couple of years playing with Brandon (Knight) and [Eric Bledsoe]. When they went out, the ball kind of found my hands a lot and I had to make a lot of plays and see different defenses and just play through mistakes and learn.
“I take a lot of pride in it. I haven’t been in that position as of recent but definitely had some flashbacks tonight.”
Booker had 25 points, five rebounds, 12 assists and six steals on 9-of-16 shooting. He was a game-high +26, the dozen dimes were his most since March 2020 and the six takeaways topped his previous career-high of four. Oh, and that’s the first time in franchise history someone has recorded that stat line, per Stathead.
And the funny thing is, if Booker’s teammates hit more shots, he would have easily bested his previous high point in assists of 14. He also was great defensively, where it went beyond just the steals and he put in the required work on that end too.
“I thought Devin managed the game well,” Williams said. “You look at his assist numbers, he got off the ball and was finding guys at the right times. … I thought his steal-out defense was phenomenal.”
Booker played at a terrific tempo in the first half, diagnosing what Oklahoma City’s (18-41) defense was going to throw at him with Cam Johnson starting in place of Paul.
The answer was bodies, and more so, bodies in the paint to cut both Booker and Deandre Ayton’s space off in the primary action of the Suns’ offense: ball screens and dives by Ayton.
That allowed Booker to make rather methodical reads on kickouts to shooters or perimeter passes even a second or two earlier when there was enough room for his teammate to attack off the dribble.
This is the central thesis on Williams’ constant point of how Booker always does his thing in the flow of the Suns’ offense. He’s the best at getting the gears spinning for 0.5 situations, the DNA of the offensive philosophy that wants ball-handlers to make the decision to dribble, pass or shoot in a half-second or less.
“He was reading the pick-and-roll coverage well,” Williams said of Booker. “He was getting off of the ball and passing in the shot pocket. That’s something that I’ve learned being around Chris, is when you can put that pass in the shot pocket, it allows the shooters to get their shots off quicker but it also means you know where the shots are coming from and you know where the coverages are.”
Again, that’s to start the process, so sometimes Booker isn’t the one getting the assist even though he put everything in motion.
What backs that up is the nights the three wings starting with him had.
Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Johnson all had at least 17 points and four assists. Bridges shot 10-of-21 for 21 points and four steals, the most shots he’s taken in a game this year.
“That’s how you have to make teams pay. … We were getting shot after shot in the first half, we missed a ton,” Williams said of how the Thunder packed the paint. “But in the second half, we did not allow the missing in the first half to mess with our confidence in the second. I thought it paid off just sticking with it.
Phoenix locked down the Thunder in the first half, creating 18 points off OKC’s 14 turnovers via 12 steals. The Suns, though, shot 2-of-17 from 3-point range. That’s where the 0.5 mentality and Booker leading it can only go so far.
Oklahoma City closed that half on a 17-5 run to only trail by five, and Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander got cooking in the third quarter to keep the game close.
The quality looks that the Suns (49-10) kept generating, however, were starting to go down. Phoenix shot 11-for-17 on trey balls in the last two quarters, including a 4-of-5 mark and 17 total points for Johnson.
As Booker’s plus-minus indicates, it looks like we will be back to the bad ol’ days of the Suns going on life support when Booker needs a breather. That was the case for his last rest in the fourth quarter when the Thunder went on a 7-1 run in the first 69 seconds he sat.
But when Booker was about to check in, guard Landry Shamet scored five points and Johnson produced an and-one for a huge eight points to put the Suns up seven as Booker came back in with 6:44 to go.
Once the clock struck five minutes to go with Phoenix holding a five-point edge, that’s when the Suns kicked it into overdrive, as usual.
Aaron Holiday found Bridges for a layin, Booker scored back-to-back buckets and then assisted a Crowder 3 before getting a hockey assist on a Johnson 3. The five field goals in six possessions was a 12-2 spurt across 2:34 that was a wrap on the game.
Holiday was tremendous, his fourth straight strong performance since arriving from the Washington Wizards. Williams went with him over Elfrid Payton for the backup point guard minutes, and while the mechanical output of the offense was a little erratic withou Booker from a guy who is more of a combo guard, Holiday’s fitting right in as a 0.5 player. He was 5-of-5 for 12 points with five assists.
“I just thought we’d be better served having him come off the bench and be Aaron,” Williams said of the decision to go Point Book in the starting lineup as opposed to starting Holiday. “I think he’s trying to figure out when to pass and what to do on the second side when our bigs dive, that kind of thing. I think he’s going to get more and more comfortable.”
It was of those uncharacteristic nights for Ayton, and in particular, with his hands. Ayton’s team-high five turnovers were a byproduct of those bounce passes he struggles handling at times and getting the ball stripped away. He added six points, eight rebounds, two steals and a block across 30 minutes.
Booker played 38 minutes in the first game of a back-to-back and was bringing the ball up almost every possession. When he wasn’t, it was because Crowder or Johnson passed Booker the ball once he went through his off-ball movement the Suns used often to set him up with Paul at the helm. Holiday was Williams’ first sub each half, a segment where Holiday will probably start running more of the offense as he gets more comfortable.
The workload for Booker will be something to monitor throughout Paul’s absence. Cam Payne’s eventual return from a right wrist sprain figures to be into the starting lineup, but even then, Booker will still be Point Book a bit after hardly doing it with Paul. It’s more taxing and is the reason why Williams didn’t go to it in the past over large segments of the game but it’s also their best option right now to win games and gives them reps with it before the postseason when they can deploy it again.
“He’s well-conditioned, he’s high energy,” Williams said of Booker. “Don’t think I’ve ever seen him, at least he won’t admit to me when he’s tired. So I have to, at times, be the governor for him so he can be fresh going down the stretch.”
Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 32 points. Phoenix started trapping him more in the second half to some success and dared the Thunder’s shooters to beat them. They did not, posting a 6-for-31 (19.4%) mark.