EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Devin Booker’s redemption tour crosses off 1st stop, Suns advance

Apr 26, 2023, 12:17 AM | Updated: 1:12 am

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns won the Western Conference two years ago but what they did a season later will be more memorable for most, etched over an NBA Finals appearance when it comes to how they will be remembered as a basketball team.

For better or for worse, the embarrassing Game 7 exit at home to the Dallas Mavericks is what they will be identified by. For now, at least.

Devin Booker knows that better than anyone. Part of why he won an Olympic gold medal and the 3-point contest is because he saw the greats do it. He understands how the history books look back on careers.

This postseason, he is playing like he refuses to have anyone to look back on his run 50 years from now and even bring up the Mavericks ending at all. Booker plans on having a resume overflowing to the point where you’ll forget Game 7 even happened.

His redemption tour is off to a flame-throwing start. Booker has been the best player in the first round of the NBA playoffs and his latest superstar performance in a 136-130 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday advanced his squad in five games.

Who knows if that’s what’s driving him to unlock this next level. But whatever it is and what he is channeling it into, can we all have some too?!

Booker tied his playoff career high of 47 points to go with eight rebounds, 10 assists, two steals and three turnovers on 19-of-27 shooting. He becomes just the eighth player in NBA history with multiple playoff games of 40+ points and 10+ assists, according to Stathead.

For the series, Booker averaged 37.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 2.6 steals, 1.0 blocks and 3.0 turnovers while shooting 60.2% from the field.

It is one of the best offensive flurries in NBA playoff history. Booker became the first guard ever across a five-game span in the same postseason to record at least 35 PPG on 60% shooting or better. For players overall, he is alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Elgin Baylor, Bernard King, Kawhi Leonard, George Mikan and Shaquille O’Neal, per Stathead.

The extra gear of relentlessness to Booker’s play this postseason, the latest of many evolutions in his game, is something to behold. As Valley sports fans, I’m not sure who we’ve seen at a higher level before. If there’s someone on the list with him, it’s a small freaking list.

Booker outscored the Clippers in the third quarter by himself, 25-24.

“It damn sure looked like it,” Suns guard Chris Paul said when hearing that fact.

It was the third 25-point quarter in the postseason since 1997, per Stathead, having Booker join Damian Lillard (25, 2019) and Allen Iverson (26, 2001). Fitting company considering those two guys singlehandedly carried those offenses time after time.

Booker added two assists to contribute to a 50-point period overall for the Suns that ended with a 24-7 run in the last 4:34. Phoenix went from trailing by nine at halftime to up 17 heading to the fourth.

“Just feeling it out,” Booker said of that quarter. “We stressed in the locker room we didn’t want to go back to L.A. unless it was for the Western Conference Finals. … We knew we wanted to do it quick. We didn’t want to wait until the fourth quarter and try to fight an uphill battle so I’m glad we could get some cushion because we needed it.”

“It was spiritual,” Suns forward Kevin Durant said of Booker’s outburst. “I don’t scream too much in the games no more as I got older but when he hit that 3 at the top of the key, I felt the energy and I know everybody in our crowd felt it. We feed off of his aggression. Not just us on the team, but Suns fans watching (on) TV, Suns fans in the arena — his impact and his presence just means a lot to us. That was incredible to see and be a part of.”

The need for Booker’s heroics cannot be stated enough, even against a Clippers squad without Paul George (knee) all series and missing Kawhi Leonard (knee) since Game 3. In an alternate timeline where Booker is merely OK, Phoenix could have lost any of its four victories.

If there was any more proof needed of that, Los Angeles stormed back in a 15-2 surge to somehow have it at a two-point game with 2:46 to go. I watched it and I still don’t know how it happened or how to describe it beyond the fact that the ball continued to not find Durant and head coach Monty Williams improbably had Landry Shamet out there as the fifth guy despite his season-long struggles.

Thirty seconds later, Clippers guard Russell Westbrook missed a layup he converts on 99 times out of 100 and Booker drilled a middy the other way down. Another minute down on the clock at a two-point Suns lead and Nic Batum missed a contested 3 and Booker turned it over to Shamet in transition.

Williams got Shamet out of there and Josh Okogie immediately made the biggest play of the night with a steal to set up a Durant layup on a runout. Westbrook threw a bad pass eight seconds later, Durant drew two free throws and that was it for a game that should have been over long before that.

The Clippers players and coaches deserve all the praise and flowers. It should not get lost over time how close this series was and how much of a fight they put up shorthanded. So many teams would have been affected mentally when Leonard went down or after giving up a 50-point third quarter. Not those guys. And they did it while forcibly dictating how this series would be decided stylistically. It was a good ol’ fashioned slobberknocker.

They had seven players in double figures and Norman Powell’s 27 points led the charge.

The first half was fairly inexcusable given what Phoenix expected and had to battle through to be up 3-1, and the strange twist in all this was the Suns got off to their best start of the series. They won the first quarter for the first time, 32-30. The Clippers hit a few tough shots to be within range and then Phoenix started snoozing.

The Clippers had beyond proven a point they were scrappy enough to win this series, no matter who was out. Despite that, the Suns were lackadaisical on the glass and with multiple efforts defensively. Los Angeles scored 40 in the second quarter after 30 for the first, producing 21 of its 34 second-chance points off 10 of its 17 offensive rebounds.

Fingers will get pointed at Phoenix’s centers but there was a serve lack of team rebounding. And when the Clippers got the ball, the perimeter players were not quick enough recovering to shooters.

The Suns wasted a great offensive first half for Booker and Deandre Ayton that should have been the catalyst for a sizable lead. Instead, a Booker bonanza saved the day.

Once again, I am lost when it comes to how Durant reached 30 points in this game. He got up to 31, plus six rebounds, four assists, a block, a steal and a turnover. His ability to rack up numbers despite what feels like, to his standards, a minimal impact is mind-blowing to follow.

His lack of involvement at the end of the game was something Williams credited to how the Clippers were attached to Durant and denied him in the post but also acknowledged he as the coach has to be better at getting him the ball in space.

Durant took a fall on his lower back in the late first quarter. He and Williams both said he’s fine.

Ayton played back-to-back solid games to wrap up the series in a string of concerning overall performances. Most of his 21 points and 11 rebounds came in the first half and were crucial to that effort not being worse for Phoenix.

Williams’ explanation for Shamet’s crunch-time minutes was because of the way the Clippers were playing off Okogie to get more spacing. Judging by how quickly Okogie got in the game for the first and third quarters, plus Torrey Craig’s 17 minutes, he was presumably not pleased with the point-of-attack defense there and wanted more from Okogie.

Shamet, though, has gone through a rough go for the majority of his Phoenix tenure and it’s difficult to find the logic in him getting minutes at this point. More than anything, it further emphasized how Phoenix still doesn’t know on its fifth guy with the other four starters through one series.

That overshadowed what was the third consecutive nice outing from the reserves. Okogie contributed 11 points with two rebounds, three assists and two steals while Bismack Biyombo added eight points, eight rebounds, two assists and three blocks in a dozen minutes.

Booker (42 minutes) and Durant (44) will need the rest ahead of Saturday’s Game 1 in Denver against the Nuggets. The schedule gods were in the Suns’ favor with Game 2 set for Monday and Game 3 back in Phoenix not coming until Friday, May 5.

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