EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Devin Booker’s iconic playoff run continues, Suns tie up series vs. Nuggets
May 7, 2023, 10:46 PM | Updated: May 8, 2023, 9:38 am
PHOENIX — Footprint Center was percolating and Devin Booker sensed it.
Kevin Durant snatched a rebound and delivered the outlet to Booker. His Phoenix Suns crowd was making that type of noise where it’s not encouragement, more so a directive. They wanted him to strike.
Booker ran the ball up, navigated a screen, stopped on a dime and rose for 3. Nylon only. Crowd erupts.
It was no different than an orchestrator waving a wand. Booker took a few seconds to admire his work and take it in while staring daggers through whatever was in front of him.
Listen to the crowd.
He was never passing next possession. Booker saw two defenders, like he did most of the night. No matter.
“That’s just Book,” head coach Monty Williams said. “He looks for those moments to not just make those shots but to send a message to his team that he can carry us.”
Message received. It feels different, what we’re seeing. This is why: Together we are watching someone be immortalized in real time. Booker has become the best Sun ever.
His latest transcendent playoff performance has somehow lifted Phoenix to a 2-2 tied series against a spectacular Denver Nuggets team that keeps proving it is as good as it is supposed to be. The Suns won 129-124 in Sunday’s Game 4.
Booker shot 14-of-18 for 36 points, six rebounds, a steal and five turnovers, plus a playoff career-high 12 assists. He is now averaging 36.8 points per game and shooting 61.7% in nine playoff games and is 34-for-43 in the two games Chris Paul (left groin strain) has missed.
I love a good tidal wave mention to reflect a run in a basketball game. What Nikola Jokic did in the third quarter was a freaking typhoon. He scored 18 points and added three assists. You could feel him actually taking over the game.
Suns win the quarter 35-31. How? Booker had 17 points and three assists of his own, and the emphatic stomping of his foot down with that pair of 3s was a “not in my house big fella.”
This series and playoffs 99 times out of 100 would be a coronation of sorts for Jokic, celebrating the back-to-back MVP and the historic highs his level of play is reaching to lead his team. He ended up with 53 points, four rebounds, 11 assists, a block and six turnovers on 20-for-30 shooting.
“He’s playing out of his mind,” Booker said of Jokic, wisely pointing out Jokic is doing all that while playing at the level of the screen defensively and putting in extra work there. Jokic was on his horse in that third quarter specifically.
“You don’t fluster him, he’s strong, he can make every shot,” Durant said of Jokic. “I hate when he makes shots because he’s so unorthodox and it’s like, ‘Oh yeah that’s a miss’ and then it goes straight in. He’s incredible and I thought he carried them all night tonight scoring the ball.”
But the Suns are going to win this series if the games continue to be defined by shot making. For all the truly outstanding capabilities Jokic and Jamal Murray have in that department, they aren’t out-dueling Booker and Durant.
That’s all this fixture was about. Possession after possession of those four guys converting asinine amounts of shot making.
The difference maker was Suns guard Landry Shamet. His 19 points were the fifth-most in the game outside of the star quartet that combined for 153 points, 60.5% of the game’s scoring.
Shamet hit four of his five 3s in a fourth quarter Booker did not score in. Part of Booker’s greatness is the endless trust he has in his teammates, a constant point of emphasis for the team overall. Booker will get pissed at role players if they don’t shoot. He’s passing you the ball for a reason. Let it fly.
Denver wisely chose to have Shamet beat them instead of Booker or Durant. It got burned.
Shamet’s fourth triple put Phoenix up 10 with 4:56 to go. While the Nuggets crawled back into it, the cushion he created was enough.
Shamet let out what was less of a yell and more of a scream after one of those. This moment was a long time coming for a guy who has been getting booed recently as he checks in, a player Williams has shown endless faith in that people including myself have questioned repeatedly.
The guard’s two years in Phoenix have not gone well. His lack of decisiveness and inability to avoid pressing when trying to make up for that adds up to disjointed minutes.
But I cannot emphasize to you enough 1) how good of a shooter Shamet is and 2) how hard he works. Former teammate Mikal Bridges said it himself.
I just know my boy works too hard 🤷🏾♂️
— Mikal Bridges (@mikal_bridges) May 8, 2023
It was coming eventually. Williams knew it. And his faith won the Suns a critical contest.
“To see guys overcome the mental challenges that the NBA presents every single player,” Williams said. “I don’t care who you are. From the elite guys to the guys who are just trying to make it on 10-day contracts, doubt creeps in at some point, and it’s a skill to overcome that and keep working and stay with it and that’s who he’s been.
“He and I have had a number of talks about just grinding it out, don’t overthink it, trust your work. … You love to see guys like that who put the work in and stay with it and succeed.”
Shamet became the punching bag of the fanbase over the last two years, especially in the last couple of weeks. It had to be rewarding for him.
“Mont’ and I are very close and I trust him,” Shamet said. “I’m a smart guy and understand basketball. Understand there’s going to be ups and downs and we have a really deep team and a good team. I trust him, I trust myself and I just want to win. I don’t really care about the other stuff. The noise, the nonsense, the whatever that goes on. I just want to win.”
What has never waned is his effort defensively and what he has done playing a part in wearing down Murray has undoubtedly become a factor in this series. Booker is the only guy who has a real shot 1-on-1 with Murray, which is limited by Phoenix for obvious reasons, and Shamet at the least is making Murray earn every single basket.
“Man. The intensity he brought on the ball defensively,” Durant said. “That takes it to the next level. He worked his ass off on the ball. Jamal Murray is an incredible player. That pick-and-roll with him and Jokic is almost unstoppable. But he just played his tail off, made plays, got back into the play. Him and DA made some huge plays late for us to get this win and we gonna need that going forward.”
When Shamet nailed his third 3, his 11 points matched Denver’s third-highest scorer, Aaron Gordon. He finished with that many and so did Michael Porter Jr.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope added 10 points and Denver’s bench combined for 11.
If the Nuggets don’t get back to the first two games of the series with big-time contributions from other guys, especially with the way Suns beat them at the 3-point line on Sunday (13-7), they are in serious trouble.
Murray’s 28 points on 13-of-25 included a whole lot of dribbling. Both he and Jokic have to better balance how to get theirs while not messing up the offense’s flow if Denver is going to stick in this.
Phoenix’s bench was great once again. Shamet was the star but Williams has found something with Jock Landale (eight points), Terrence Ross (8) and T.J. Warren (5) all playing with so much energy that it’s re-establishing Phoenix’s past identity as the group that just outworks you.
“We just play extremely hard,” Durant said. “You’re not gonna stop these guys, efficient players. But we played hard. I think that made up for it.”
Booker confirmed that signature wear-down effect came back in the last two games.
“Yeah. I feel that,” he said. “It’s hard to do it for 48 minutes for both teams so that’s why these moments come down to who wants it. I like our group.”
Ross, in particular, has now attempted 12 3s in 31 minutes the last two games. Phoenix had to fix its math when coming back home and Ross helps a lot with that. He’s going to explode like Shamet in one of these outings soon enough.
With tweaks like that and the Nuggets unable to take advantage of the weaknesses from those players that had Williams initially hesitating to play them, Williams is definitively out-coaching Denver’s Michael Malone through four games.
Deandre Ayton responded to his benching at the end of Game 3 with a better outing. Williams said Ayton’s three offensive rebounds on the first possession “set the tone” and the big man put in a few handfuls of top-notch effort that is the expectation. His defense, though, was still not close to the level it has to be at.
Durant, somehow a borderline footnote in a game like this, was 11-of-19 for 36 points with 11 rebounds, six assists, two steals, a block and five turnovers. It has been really fun as a basketball fan to watch him embrace how much this group absolutely gets after it. A few defensive possessions he was actually putting himself out of position with how much he wanted to fly around.
It was a good bounce-back game for him after two uncharacteristically inefficient performances.
“Throw that efficiency [expletive] out the window,” Booker said of Durant. “I don’t care about that. Just keep going.”
Nineteen shots tells Durant he was in a good place.
“That’s pretty much how I could tell I was in the flow of the game,” he said. “Not trying to search for shots, not rushing shots.”
In the second quarter, Jokic pursued a loose ball with Suns guard Josh Okogie. Okogie went into the first row, and Jokic wanted to get the break going with it being Denver ball. A fan was holding the ball and Jokic went to take it away from them. After he got it, Jokic delivered what the pool report from the officials deemed a deliberative shove to that fan.
The fan was Suns owner Mat Ishbia, who executed a perfect flop that fellow Michigan State alum Draymond Green will be proud of.
lmao Jokic ripped the ball from the Suns owner pic.twitter.com/9vMkhyn0Um
— CJ Fogler account may or may not be notable (@cjzero) May 8, 2023
Malone said he didn’t “give a [expletive]” who the fan was and Jokic thought he was pushed first. The league will certainly take a look at it after the official’s verdict, and Jokic’s history with Flagrant 2’s (Cam Payne and Markieff Morris) doesn’t help.