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When news broke Wednesday night that Bradley Beal had been downgraded from “probable” to “out” against the Minnesota Timberwolves, it felt like the air had been sucked out of the Footprint Center. All the excitement over the debut of the Phoenix Suns’ Big 3 quickly turned to anxiety. Beal’s back became the big story, while Devin Booker’s return got bumped to the back burner.
The Timberwolves had won seven straight games and were the NBA’s top-ranked defense. Meanwhile, the Suns had lost five of their last seven, and Beal’s late scratch denied the fanbase its long-awaited opportunity to see the Big 3 in action. It was starting to feel like nothing was going Phoenix’s way.
Leave it to the face of the franchise to remind everyone that as long as Devin Booker is out there running the show, things will be all right.
In his first game in two weeks, Booker racked up 31 points and 5 assists in just 26 minutes, shooting 12-of-22 from the floor. It was an impressive display from all three levels as a scorer:
“The shot-making, the attention that he draws, bringing two to the ball, his ability to pass the basketball out of it, is really exceptional,” coach Frank Vogel said. “An underrated part of his game, and he was great tonight.”
As a driver, Booker got downhill, finding openings to sneak crafty layups past Rudy Gobert. As a midrange threat, he similarly relished every opportunity to attack Gobert in drop coverage. And as a 3-point shooter, he knocked down a pair of pull-up 3s coming off great screens from his big men.
Devin Booker owns the point guard role
It wasn’t just the scoring that fueled Phoenix’s season-high 133 points against the league’s best defense, of course. Booker finished with only 5 assists, but his gravity and playmaking opened things up for his teammates, especially when Durant was doing the same thing whenever they shared the court.
From their opening possession in the Spain pick-and-roll, the Suns leveraged Gobert’s drop coverage to put Minnesota’s guards and help defenders in impossible predicaments, usually resulting in wide-open 3s:
The Suns have struggled with making open looks in recent games (especially in fourth quarters), but there was more offensive flow than there’s been in a weeks. All summer, people worried about who Phoenix’s point guard would be. Kevin Durant — and Wednesday’s performance in general — reminded everyone who that is.
“Incredible,” Durant said of Booker. “That’s what I expect out of him every time he touches the floor. I maybe was expecting a little bit of, like, wind in his lungs early on, but he looked great. The pop was there, just playing with pace, and that’s what we need. It’s good to have our point guard back.”
Three games is a small sample size, but when he’s played, Booker has put up 31.3 points, 8.7 assists and 6.3 rebounds in 32.7 minutes per game, shooting 56.4 percent overall and 45.5 percent from 3. Durant has carried Phoenix so far this season, but this team becomes downright unstoppable when Booker is out there with him.
It’s the reason Durant labeled Booker as the guy that “makes this thing go.” Vogel added that Booker’s leadership has been “invaluable” this year, noting that he’s stepped up as the Suns’ most vocal leader during practices and film sessions, even when he hasn’t been in uniform.
“He’s really taken the reins of that this year with this team, and even more so, on the floor as the point guard running the show,” Vogel said. “We ask our point guards or primary ball-handlers to get us into an action, and I will put us in action if I want to see it, but I want them to own their team. And he really takes control of that.”
After three seasons of learning from one of the greatest to ever do it in Chris Paul, Point Book has succeeded the Point God.
“He definitely did a lot of that last year, or the last three years,” Booker said. “So just being voices, but we have multiple leaders on this team that lead in different ways. I think the term leadership goes off if you’re successful or not, and there’s many ways to do it.”
So far, Devin Booker’s form of leadership has been playing lights-out as a scorer and playmaker to open up things for everyone else — including Durant, one of the game’s all-time great scorers who’s carried too heavy a burden to begin the season.
Coming into Wednesday, Durant ranked in the top-five in minutes per game and was posting the second-highest usage rate of his career — not ideal for a 35-year-old! Opponents were able to throw constant double-teams, blitzes and other junk defenses at him, forcing the other guys to beat them.
Minnesota typically trusts their high-caliber wing defenders with one-on-one situations, which played right into Phoenix’s hands with the Wolves on the second night of a back-to-back. But Durant and his teammates could just feel the difference in the offense with Booker running the show.
“Most definitely, obviously adding Book puts a little bit more fear into the defense,” Durant said. “Tonight, I was able to get to the post, get to the midrange as well. But adding Book out there just makes everything easier for everybody, and once we get Brad back, it’s gonna feel the same way.”
One example came in the second half, when Booker was one pass away from a Durant iso in the middle of the floor. KD obviously did the heavy lifting here, but Book being on one side and Eric Gordon being in the other corner meant the Wolves couldn’t send help, leaving Durant to feast one-on-one:
It’s that type of spacing and gravity that makes it so much easier for Durant to pick and choose his spots. Having a capable ball-handler and scoring threat who’s willing to push the pace opens up additional opportunities as well.
“That’s gonna be the name of the game for our whole season,” Booker said. “We talked about it last playoffs and we continue to. I think when we play slower, usually that means we’re not getting stops, we’re taking the ball out the net every time, and it allows people to throw junk defenses at [Durant] and let them set their defense. But if we get stops and — we call it the kick-ahead action — get KD, get Brad out in the open floor, they’re tough to stop without fouling them or giving up a layup.”
The trickle-down effect of Devin Booker
A good number of Durant’s buckets on Wednesday came during Booker’s rest time, but his impact was still felt: A fully healthy Devin Booker allows Durant to conserve energy and not have to do everything on the offensive end. So when it’s time for KD to anchor those bench-heavy, Booker-less lineups, he hasn’t already overexerted himself.
“Book makes everybody’s life easier, for all those reasons we just said,” Vogel explained. “And I think Kev did benefit from that tonight.”
Durant wasn’t the only one. Against the NBA’s most formidable defense, Phoenix tallied 133 points on 60 percent shooting overall, including 17-of-31 from 3-point range. The Suns were due for some reversion to the mean, but it felt like their shot quality improved from the last few games.
“We had a lot of good shots, and that’s what you want to have,” Eric Gordon said. “Every time you come down, it feels like a good shot. Whoever took the shot, it feels like a good shot, and that’s what we just need to continue to building. Because we’ve been taking too many tough shots throughout the season so far, and we gotta get easier ones like tonight.”
It’s probably not a coincidence the shots felt so much easier! It feels hyperbolic to give Booker credit for his teammates hitting shots or making plays, but the way he sets the tone from the game’s opening minutes has some strange, infectious effect on the flow of the game itself. Just look at how the ball is zipping all over the court! Look at how guys are flying all over the place, and how the Suns are generating high-quality looks, even when Booker’s not on the court:
Some of these possessions — like Drew Eubanks’ soul-snatching dunk over Karl-Anthony Towns, for example — feature Booker’s gravity and Durant’s underrated passing in the pick-and-roll. But there’s just a certain swagger and confidence to the Suns when Booker is playing, in a way that goes beyond the simple math of a team missing a top-10 player.
Is it a coincidence Josh Okogie has shot 4-for-5 from 3-point range in the three games Booker played, compared to 3-for-21 in the other eight? Is it small sample size theater that the Suns have had two of their three highest-scoring games of the season in two of the three games Booker has played? Is the eye test wrong in believing Phoenix’s ball movement and offensive flow has been better when he and Durant have both suited up?
None of this should take away from Durant’s Herculean efforts to keep the Suns’ heads above water, but having both superstars on the court — with Beal hopefully to follow soon — opens up the offense in completely unfair ways. Booker joked he’s just “the relay man” who tries to kick the ball ahead to Durant and his teammates, but he sets the whole table for everyone to feast.
It’s taken a while thanks to numerous injuries, but the Suns are rapidly approaching their offensive potential now that Devin Booker — their point guard — is back.
“With us, we should be unstoppable offensively,” Gordon said. “A night like tonight, this should be the standard. Averaging 120, 130 points, I mean, why not? Good teams, bad teams, we just scored 133 on the No. 1 defensive team, and I think that should be the standard. That’s how good we can be.”
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