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Comeback win over Pelicans proves Devin Booker is carrying Suns like never before

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
December 18, 2022

Devin Booker has had some memorable and historic performances in his eight-year career, but Saturday’s masterpiece may be his finest yet.

It wasn’t just Booker’s season-high 58 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists. It wasn’t the 25 straight points he scored for the Phoenix Suns to bridge the third and fourth quarters, and it wasn’t the stunning nature of their 118-114 comeback win over the New Orleans Pelicans — the current 2-seed in the Western Conference who have had their number lately — after trailing by as many as 24 points.

Booker has been in situations where he’s basically had to score half his team’s points. He’s scored more than 58 points in a game before, after all.

But what really stood out — and what continues to feel worrisome through the Suns’ first 30 games — is how often Phoenix has to rely on their franchise superstar. It’s a recurring flashback to the franchise’s recent dog days in the mid-2010s, with two major exceptions: Devin Booker is playing the best basketball of his career, and the Suns actually won after one of his transcendent nights.

“Man, unreal,” Chris Paul said of Booker’s performance. “I done had an opportunity to play with a lot of greats. I played with Blake Griffin, I played with James Harden, played with now Book, and sheesh. You try to not get caught up watching.”

It’s been as brutal a two-week period as the Suns have seen since before the pandemic. Their five-game losing streak was out of character, and while it was compounded by injuries, even before Booker’s two-game absence due to left hamstring tightness, the Suns’ chosen one had hit a rough patch.

In three losses to the Dallas Mavericks, Boston Celtics and New Orleans Pelicans, Booker fell out of the early MVP jockeying, averaging 14.0 points per game on 15-of 47 shooting (31.9 percent). He was in a slump, and upon returning from that minor hamstring issue, he struggled once again, tallying 14 points on 6-of-22 shooting.

In other words, he was due. On Saturday, New Orleans paid the price for an overdue Book.

“I told the coaches this morning that he was approaching something,” coach Monty Williams said. “You don’t know, but he doesn’t have those kinds of shooting nights consecutively. And I saw how frustrated he was in LA, and I was like, ‘We gotta figure out a way to, get him going.’ I wish it was something that I did, or schematically we tried to figure some things out; he just had one of those nights.”

Having “one of those nights” doesn’t usually consist of a 58-6-5 stat line, however. It doesn’t normally involve going 21-for-35 from the floor, tying the career-high 21 field goals he made in his legendary 70-point game. And it doesn’t typically mean tying his regular-season career-high six made 3s for the 19th time, setting a new arena scoring record at the Footprint Center (previous: Gilbert Arenas with 54 back in 2006) or dropping 40-plus for the fourth time in the last nine games.

What really made it special was the familiar struggle of Booker doing everything in his power to carry his team to victory, and this time, being able to see it through.

“I mean, he been that guy,” Paul said. “Now it’s just, he in that mode, he’ll do whatever the team needs to win. And he been doing it for years. I guess everybody is just noticing now ’cause we winning a little bit more.”

That’s the thing, though: At 18-12, the Suns haven’t been winning at the rate they’ve grown accustomed to. With so many injuries, it’s been difficult to establish a set rotation. Phoenix’s lack of a true, reliable No. 2 option has become glaring, if only because the gap between Book and their next-best player has been so immense.

Against the Pelicans, Booker was a +11 in 42 minutes. In the 6 minutes he rested, the Suns were a -7. Plus/minus is an imperfect stat without proper context, but those numbers back up what we’ve seen all season. Phoenix has outscored its opposition by a team-best 129 in Booker’s 997 minutes of action this season, but in the 453 minutes where he’s sat, that number shrivels up to a team-worst +7.

When Booker has scored 25 points or fewer this season, the Suns are 8-6. When he scores more than 25, they’re 10-4.

For all the consternation over where he stacks up among the leading MVP candidates and whether he can be “the guy” on a championship team, it was hard not to think of those numbers as Booker did his best Atlas impersonation Saturday night. He put the Valley on his shoulders, scoring 25 straight points to break his own franchise record for most consecutive points scored by a Sun (21).

“I always bring it back to the franchise that believed in me, that drafted the 18-year-old kid out of Kentucky,” Booker said of breaking the arena’s scoring record. “So to be here through the ups and downs and to have the struggle years and the people still stay with us, stay with me and believe, to do it here in front of our home crowd was very important.”

Booker now owns the scoring records for three NBA venues: the Footprint Center (58 points), TD Garden in Boston (70 points) and Vivint Arena in Utah (59 points). He also became the sixth-youngest player in NBA history to reach 12,000 career points, and the only five who got there at a younger age were LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and Tracy McGrady.

Here’s the issue though: As much fun as it’s been to watch Book cook this season, and as unforgettable as the Suns’ comeback win over New Orleans was, it was hard to watch that game unfold and not think about how unsustainable Phoenix’s formula for winning is right now.

This wasn’t the case of a player simply getting hot over one 25-point stretch and taking over; Book was carrying his team all night. At halftime, he had 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting, while the rest of his teammates had 24 points combined on 8-of-31 shooting. Through three quarters, Booker had exactly half of his team’s 84 points.

“The stuff that that young man does on the floor, it’s unique to him,” Williams said. “You’re grateful for it, and you enjoy it, and he gave our team a lot of energy tonight — not just with the scoring, but just that competitive drive. Coming out of halftime, everybody — I didn’t feel it the way that I typically feel it. But he was like, ‘Okay, I got this.’”

“I was just making shots, man,” Booker said. “I’ve been in a bit of a slump, and I’ve just gotta keep shooting. That’s what I live by, and I was put in the right situations to make the right plays. I usually just want to make the right play every time, but once I get into a rhythm a little bit, shooting over a hand is the right play.”

And yet, as easy as it’d be to revel in one of the best individual performances of his career, Booker credited the “whole collective group” for the Suns’ ability to come back from 24 down. He highlighted Josh Okogie’s defense and work on the offensive boards, Jock Landale and Bismack Biyombo for setting screens, and the big 3-pointers Chris Paul hit in the fourth quarter.

“We feed off each other’s energy and we have really talented guys on this team,” Booker said. “Even being down men, we’re still going deep into the bench, and these guys are ready to go.”

It wasn’t just scoring or confidence where Booker set the tone though. The Suns had been targeting Zion Williamson all quarter by using his man as a screener for Book to force the switch, but once New Orleans adjusted and started trapping, Booker continued to show his mastery of double-teams, making the right reads to allow his teammates to attack.

That’s not easy to do on a night where he had 58 points and the rest of the Suns shot a combined 37.5 percent from the field, but Booker has stayed consistent with trusting his teammates.

“He was making the right pass out of the double-team,” Williams said. “That was even more impressive. And then as guys started making shots around him — I thought Chris’ last 3 was about as tough of a 3 as you can have to make, ’cause he caught it and he couldn’t tell if the guy was closing out, and he hitched it and still shot it pure. That was a big-time play. But Book’s an amazing basketball player, not just a scorer.”

Paul drilled five 3-pointers, with most of them being of the catch-and-shoot variety. His last one proved to be the dagger after Booker hit Okogie out of the double and he found Paul on the wing.

“Those are the shots that we need,” Booker said. That’s what it’s gonna come down to, if teams try to throw junk defenses, it’s basic math. It’s 5-on-5, two people on me, there’s gonna be one open. So the quicker we can get off the ball and make those exchanges, the more open the next shot’s gonna be. It’s something that we drill as a team, we know it’s coming, we see it almost every game or every other game, and we just try to make teams pay.”

This is nothing new; we’ve written at length about Booker’s evolution into a master manipulator of double-teams. But even for him, it’s historically been rare to see Book completely carry a team and actually emerge victorious.

On the one hand, these late-game learning experiences for guys like Okogie, Landale and Damion Lee could be beneficial down the road, even if it hasn’t always been pretty.

“This is where you build the calluses, this is where you build the grit,” Williams said. “This is where guys who haven’t played in certain situations get that experience, so that when they do, if you’re fortunate enough to get to the playoffs, they have a reference point.”

On the other hand, the byproduct of Booker’s Herculean routine is the toll it’s exacting…and how unsustainable that approach is for a full season. He’s been logging huge minutes and taking a ton of shots, and when he falls short in either respect, the Suns flounder.

Phoenix is hard to properly evaluate until they’re whole again, but with so much of the rotation in flux, no No. 2 option in sight and nearly $29 million combined going to a Jae Crowder-Dario Saric-Landry Shamet trio that’s giving them close to nothing, the Suns haven’t done much to alleviate the immense pressure on Booker’s shoulders.

“I don’t take it for granted, I know how hard it is,” Paul said. “Having games, some of them — not 58, but — you just got it goin’ like that and you just want the ball and you know every time you’re gonna make a play. So I appreciate it, ’cause I know how hard it is to consistently do that when everybody on the court knows you’re gonna get the ball.”

Here’s hoping the Suns find ways to make sure Devin Booker doesn’t have to do that on a nightly basis.

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