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After missing seven straight games with a hamstring injury, Devin Booker did not have his best shooting night against the Charlotte Hornets Sunday night. He was 6-for-15 from the field overall, and he finished with 16 points — well below his season averages of 22.9 points per game on 45.6 percent shooting.
And yet, his 16-point, 6-rebound, 5-assist performance in just 26 minutes was as seamless a return as the Phoenix Suns could’ve asked for.
“I just thought he had pop,” head coach Monty Williams said. “I didn’t think I wasn’t going to see that, but I just saw Book. He was gliding up and down the floor, which is what he does. He and Chris, both those guys in pick-and-roll tonight were willing passers, getting off the ball, and we were getting second-side actions off of those two in pick-and-roll. But he didn’t look winded at all.”
In a 137-106 blowout win on Sunday night, the Suns moved to 14 straight victories at home and a perfect 19-0 in games where they’ve held a lead going into the fourth quarter. But the final result may have been decided by the end of the first period, when Phoenix built a 37-15 lead and never looked back.
It would’ve been an impressive performance regardless, but it was especially so considering the Suns were welcoming Booker back into the starting lineup. Removing one of the NBA’s best scorers, adjusting to his absence and then readjusting to the return of such a prominent piece is not something just any team can handle so gracefully.
The Suns are not just any team, however.
“The standard of basketball here is in a good place, but we can’t be satisfied,” Williams said. “And from ball movement to competing on defense to guys setting screens to get someone open to the bench talking, like all that stuff’s really important, but it’s early in the season. And there has to be an appreciation for how we play, but understanding there’s a reason why.”
Sunday night, the Suns had nine players finish in double figures, marking the first time the franchise accomplished that feat since 1991. All five starters scored at least 14 points, JaVale McGee led the team in scoring off the bench with 19, and nobody reached 20.
The funny thing is, even as Booker notched 16 points in 26 minutes and made four of his eight 3-pointers, his return only enhanced Phoenix’s offense, rather than disrupt the new, temporary pecking order they developed without him.
“There were times where he created his own off the dribble, he just made some tough shots,” Williams said. “That’s what he does. But I’d say 70-80 — if not more — percent of the time, it’s just in flow out of what we do. All of our guys have shown that they’re willing passers, and we have a ‘we score’ mentality. That’s just who we are.”
The shots got progressively trickier as Booker gained confidence, but for the most part, his offense reintegrated itself pretty seamlessly:
It’s not just selective evidence for this one game, though. With Booker sidelined for seven-and-a-half games, the Suns went 6-2 in that span. In games without Deandre Ayton this season, they’ve gone 7-1. And despite missing Book, DA, Cam Payne, Frank Kaminsky and Abdel Nader for various stretches (not to mention Dario Saric for the whole season), they’re a league-best 24-5, sporting a top-6 offense and defense.
Sitting out the last few weeks was hard for a competitor like Book, but taking a backseat and being forced to just sit and watch gave him clarity on one thing in particular.
“That we’re a damn good team,” he said. “That’s what I picked up on. Not like I didn’t know it before, but the machine keeps moving. Even the games that we’ve had people out, somebody steps up and jumps right into that role.”
That lesson was evident is a plethora of ways. There was Chris Paul taking over in the clutch, Ayton dominating pick-and-rolls to an unprecedented degree, McGee being a per 36 minutes god — the list goes on and on. But Booker said even something as simple as watching how Landry Shamet functioned as the starting 2-guard helped him identify spots where he could be aggressive and make plays for others upon his return.
For a team welcoming back their leading scorer after a sizable absence, the Suns sure didn’t look like they had to make many adjustments in the chemistry department. They finished with 35 assists on 54 made field goals for a season-high 137 points.
“It stayed the same,” Ayton said of the Suns’ offensive flow. “D-Book is a team player, man. He’s gonna find dudes open, he gon’ still create and he gon’ play our 0.5 offense and get somebody else open, and guys just gotta be ready. Whether he’s there or not, Book is expecting you to still shoot that same shot that you were shooting when he wasn’t there.”
The flow may have stayed the same, but even in a 40 percent shooting night, just having Booker back on the floor made life so much easier for the rest of the Suns. It became clear immediately in that first quarter, when Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges came out knocking down 3s, capitalizing on the kind of extra space not being afforded to them lately when it was Shamet playing in Book’s place.
On every single one of these assists, you’ll catch a Hornets defender paying Booker just a second too much attention. Whether it’s coming up out of position to point at Book and figure out who’s supposed to be guarding him or trying to bother him with a full-fledged double-team, Charlotte struggled to account for him. The Hornets wound up leaving other Suns with too much space, which they capitalized on as soon as Booker fed them the ball:
Even when Booker was not directly involved on an assist, the larger numbers back up his importance for just being out there again. In 702 minutes with him on the court this season, the Suns boast an offensive rating of 113.4, per NBA.com. In the 695 minutes he’s sat or been out injured, that number’s dropped to 106.0.
Phoenix survived his absence thanks to Paul, DA, incredible depth and Monty Williams’ system. Now that Booker is back, it’s scary to think that this group hasn’t even fully hit its stride yet. That certainly wasn’t lost on their franchise star, who’s seen his journey come full circle, from the guy who had to carry G League talent on a nightly basis in double-digit blowout losses to now being able to watch his team win without him and then thrive upon his return.
“We have a really good system thanks to coach Monty and the coaching staff, but at the same time, we have a lot of talented players that know how to play the game and play for each other,” Booker said. “It’s kind of rare to find teams that play the right basketball every single night, and I’ve been on the other end of that and know that, so I don’t take it for granted the situation that we’re in.
“That’s what coach talked about after the game, like, ‘Don’t take it for granted that you’re up 30 on a team going into the fourth. That is not a common thing in this NBA.’ And that struck home for me, because I’ve been on the other side of it and I understand, watching those teams like Golden State in my first few years, just well-oiled and the chemistry on a high level, it’s fun to watch. And now I know it’s fun to be a part of.”
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