DAN BICKLEY

Suns’ Devin Booker shows killer instinct in dominant series vs. Clippers

Apr 25, 2023, 10:51 PM | Updated: Apr 26, 2023, 11:00 am

PHOENIX — The best parties never start on time. This one was no different.

This one was 16 years in the making.

For the first time since May 2007, the Suns clinched a playoff series in Phoenix. They went nuclear in the third period of a closeout game, morphing from a lackadaisical crew into a lethal weapon. They scored 50 points and nearly blew the roof off Footprint Center.

Then they nearly blew the game, almost squandering a 20-point lead.

Yeah, strange party.

But when it was over, the Suns had successfully put a wounded opponent in their rearview mirror. They notched their 12th victory with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker sharing a basketball court.

Twelve more, and they are NBA champions.

“Just competing at the highest level,” Booker said. “Iron sharpens iron.”

As usual, this game was mostly about Booker, the catalyst, the killer and an ascending superstar atoning for his inglorious exit from last year’s postseason. He tallied 25 points in the third quarter, personally outscoring the Clippers. He finished with a staggering stat line: 47 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds.

“It was spiritual,” Durant said of Booker’s display.

There are obvious issues with the Suns. Their defense can be atrocious, and their rebounding isn’t much better. They allowed the Clippers to score 40 points in the second quarter with their two superstars in street clothes. Phoenix’s bench is thin and its loyalty to Landry Shamet is puzzling. Its most important players are still logging dangerous minutes.

But Booker won’t be denied. He is playing at an altitude where most players can’t breathe or function properly. That will surely come in handy in a second-round series against the top-seeded Nuggets.

“He’s trained and waited for moments like that,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “I’m just glad to have him on my side.”

Meanwhile, Durant added 31 points on Tuesday, continuing the historic production of the Suns’ two superstars.

“I just think the ability to put the ball in the hole in certain environments (set them apart),” Williams said. “Once you get to Games 3, 4 and 5 in any series, your play calls are not going to be as effective. When you can throw the ball to two guys, and sometimes three guys, who can go and get a bucket, that’s playoff basketball.”

While Durant has been a clutch playoff performer for some time, there are many things different about Booker. He is now an elite defender. He is in superb physical conditioning, looking nothing like the player who arrived in Phoenix eight years ago. He has the experience that allows him to read the game at its highest level, and the explosiveness to get wherever he wants to go on a basketball court. And there’s one other notable development:

At the end of a Game 1 loss, Booker was blocked at the rim by Russell Westbrook. As he began to complain to the official, Westbrook threw the ball off the unsuspecting Booker, clinching the victory. It might’ve been a watershed moment in the arc of the player and the franchise.

Days later, Booker admitted that he and Chris Paul needed to hold each other accountable and quit fixating on officiating. That would be an understatement. And while Booker received a technical foul on Tuesday, there has been a marked improvement in his playoff temperament and focus.

He’s no longer hunting fouls, grimacing on every drive, throwing himself to the floor after jump shots. In the process, he’s now crossing into the final frontier.

If Booker is developing that level of control and emotional maturity, a parade can’t be that far behind. And that celebration will feel a lot different than the party the Suns staged on Tuesday.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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