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A game including Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook already features a lot of star power. For those keeping score, that’s four championship rings, four Finals MVP awards, two regular-season MVP awards, 27 All-Star selections and 24 All-NBA selections between the three of them. And yet, in the Phoenix Suns’ 123-109 Game 2 win of their first-round series against the LA Clippers, Devin Booker was the brightest star on the floor.
Strictly speaking, there was nothing “subtle” about the way Booker took control of Tuesday’s matchup. He finished with a game-high 38 points and 9 assists on 14-of-22 shooting. His pull-up 3 to beat the second-quarter buzzer capped off an 11-2 run that salvaged a first half where Phoenix probably should’ve been down by double figures, and his third-quarter detonation was even better.
All in all, Book completely overshadowed KD, Kawhi and Russ all at once.
Devin Booker has hit an incredibly high level. He's so much better than even the Finals run two years ago. Control, poise, playmaking, efficiency.
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 19, 2023
But in what was one of Booker’s best playoff games yet (which is saying something!), the nuances fueling his brilliant performance shouldn’t be overlooked. With precision and sharpened toolkit, Book carved up the Clippers defense with the expertise of a surgeon.
His latest playoff masterclass deserves its own breakdown, because the step-by-step progression of how he attacked LA’s ever-changing coverages was too impressive to sweep under the rug just yet.
Devin Booker against the drop
In that stunning Game 1 defeat that demanded multiple adjustments, the Suns took a staggering 62 percent of their shots from the midrange, per Cleaning The Glass, and made 47.3 percent of them. Coach Monty Williams credited the Clippers for forcing them into taking long, contested 2s, but mostly lamented how they missed shots they typically make against drop coverage.
“They did some things to force us into those shots, and when we have those shots, we gotta make ’em,” Williams said. “The midrange shot is not a kryptonite. We’ve always felt like if we make those shots, we can set our defense.”
In Game 2, the Midrange Assassuns were back with a vengeance, taking 57 percent of their shots from the midrange but making a staggering 64 percent of them. The Clippers mixed up their defensive looks constantly, but there was a simplified, aggressive approach with the ball being in the hands of Booker and Durant more often.
“I think when they do that, we just have to simplify it,” Booker said. “A lot of things that we haven’t seen before, but they have a veteran team that can do it on the fly. I don’t think a lot of teams can do that, and I remember our last series with them, they had a lot of stuff with them too. So when they’re doing that, just simplify it for us.”
Step one was pushing the tempo by letting Booker or Durant initiate the offense. Whenever Booker crossed half-court and noticed Ivica Zubac was already setting up in a deep drop, the Suns hit Book’s defender with a high screen and let him get downhill. From there, it was either an uncontested pull-up or Book keeping his defender in jail on his hip as he got to his spots:
The Suns’ pace was a problem in Game 1, but moving Chris Paul off the ball helped in Game 2.
“I thought Chris did a really good job of just putting the ball in Book’s hands and saying, ‘You go,'” Williams said. “So Book scores in a number of ways, and when he’s going like that, I think the team feeds off of his high-level play.”
Phoenix didn’t really find its groove until late in the second quarter. Trailing 51-39 with five minutes left in the half, the Suns closed on a 20-8 run that tied the game up heading into the break. They opened the third quarter on a 12-2 spurt as well, making it a 32-10 run overall.
One major key in all of that was Booker’s balanced scoring and facilitating against the drop, which forced Tyronn Lue to adjust LA’s coverages. There were multiple instances were Booker caught Zubac flat-footed, forcing help from the nearest defender who chose to leave Torrey Craig wide open.
In the second clip, Zubac shades too far to Booker’s left, thinking he’ll be in position once Book comes off the screen. Instead, Booker rejects the screen and rips through on Nicolas Batum, causing Zubac to literally stumble as he realizes too late he’s out of position. That immediately forces the help to step up as Book goes in the opposite direction:
In fairness, the Clippers have been helping off Craig by design, daring him to beat them. So far he is, averaging 19.5 points a night and shooting 7-for-12 from 3-point range in the first two games. Lue is banking on Craig’s splashy 3-point touch eventually drying up, but this is a guy who shot a career-best 39.5 percent from downtown this season.
It remains to be seen if Craig (and Josh Okogie) can keep making them pay, but the Suns’ more aggressive approach helped generate 24 3-point attempts in Game 2 after taking only 19 in Game 1. That’s still not enough, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.
“Yeah, a few more,” Williams said. “I think they are giving us a few of them, as Torrey is outside, JO’s outside, and they’re plugging the paint a bit with Zubac. And so that allows for us to get some corner 3s, but any time you can get the ball in your best players’ hands and space the floor well, I think it allows for you to be more efficient.”
Efficient is putting it lightly. It got to the point where Zubac was getting turned around in his drop coverage by simple ball fakes and jab steps, opening up driving lanes for Booker that the Clippers’ personnel couldn’t close off at the point of attack. Blink and you might miss it, but Booker’s subtle ball-fake to his left tricks Zubac and Eric Gordon:
“Came out, settled into it,” Booker said succinctly. “Seen what they were doing and just went from there.”
At that point, Zubac was forced to play higher in coverage. He doesn’t possess anywhere near enough foot speed to hedge hard or blitz, but as he took another step or two closer to the perimeter, Booker started sizing him up and breaking down the space he had to work with in real time. So how was he feeling while these plays developed?
“Comfortable,” Booker said. “It’s that time of year. Everything counts. I think with the talent that we have on this team, spacing is a big thing. So just trying to give Kev space, trying to give CP space, just putting everybody in the best position to succeed.”
A couple of times, it manifested in a few moon shot 3s that looked well-contested, but might as well have been walk-up practice shots with how comfortable he felt taking them.
Booker went 4-for-7 from 3-point range, marking the first time since March 8 he made four 3-pointers in a game. The one he drilled in the third quarter that practically grazed the Jumbotron was just the next phase of the torrential downpour that came in his 45 minutes of playing time.
“I was planning on taking him out the first two minutes of the fourth,” Williams said before laughing. “Then he got going, and then I said, ‘One more play,’ and then, ‘One more play,’ and he kept hitting shots! So I just let him go.”
With that bucket fresh in his head, Zubac stayed closer to the perimeter off Deandre Ayton’s high screen. That only gave Booker more room to drive and engage the help defender before finding Craig in the corner:
“He was super aggressive,” Durant said. “They were switching up their defenses a lot, trying to throw us off, but I thought he didn’t care, he just was going downhill trying to create something for us.”
There was nowhere for Zubac to run at that point, because even when he wasn’t involved in the pick-and-roll, Booker targeted him as a weak-side defender.
Take this example, where Bismack Biyombo’s screen for Durant leaves Zubac stranded in the middle of the floor. Booker senses it and zooms past Gordon (as he has all series), picking on Zubac with multiple hesitation dribbles that left both of them unclear about who was guarding him anymore.
“When he’s attacking like that, and then he was knocking down big shots from outside, it just keeps everybody off-balance,” Williams said.
At that point, Booker’s confidence was sky-high. He was in the zone, and not even a former two-time Defensive Player of the Year could stop him. Watch as Booker drives right past Kawhi Leonard, draws Zubac as the help defender and perfectly pinpoints Craig in the opposite corner with a pass over Norman Powell:
“I think continuity helps when you have a player like Book, because you spend a lot of time in the gym talking about spacing and where guys should be,” Williams said. “That allows for him to go, and then if he does have to make the pass, he knows where that guy is. Then the other part is he’s just good. When he’s rolling like that, it’s hard to guard him when he’s going downhill. But I think having Kevin on the floor allows for more space, and then Torrey is knocking down shots.”
In the first half, Booker had 13 points on 4-of-8 shooting, including 1-of-3 from 3-point range. He also had 3 assists, which generated 8 points for the Suns. In the third quarter alone, Book dropped 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting, including 2-of-2 from deep and 4 assists for 10 more Suns points. All in all, he scored or assisted on 28 of Phoenix’s 33 points in the period.
Yet somehow, Lue decided his small-ball lineups had to keep the pressure on Durant, because he’s still KD, after all. Booker showed little signs of fatigue, capitalizing on his openings from LA’s double-teams on Durant.
“I thought the spacing was a lot better tonight,” Williams said. “I thought we were organized a little bit better than we were the other day. But just having the balance of him and Kevin being able to get to their spots with a live ball helps.”
We’ve already seen Booker take advantage of being opponents’ second concern behind Durant, but not on a playoff stage, and certainly not when he was already cooking like this.
“Once they started throwing it in the post to me, they started doubling, now he went on that backside, coming up and just making plays,” Durant said of his co-star. “He’s an all-around player. He could do everything at an elite level on the basketball court, so we gotta utilize that.”
Booker’s 38-point night may not even be one of his top five playoff outings, but it’s a scary sign of what happens when he cracks the code of an opposing defense. That’s no small feat against Lue’s constantly shifting coverages, and the fact that he was able to do it by scoring and facilitating bodes well.
“I feel like he’s an oversized point guard, to be honest,” Durant said. “Like, a guy that can initiate, make plays for others, quick getting to the rim, either hand. He can do pretty much everything at that point guard position. So when he got it, we played a little faster. Got so many options for him — shooting a 3, get to the middy or the free-throw line. So we gotta continue to explore all of those options.”
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