LOS ANGELES — Zooming out, a narrow Game 3 victory over an LA Clippers team missing its two best players is hardly cause for celebration. It also does little to convince Phoenix Suns critics that this is the year they’ll get over that championship hump. But even as Kevin Durant and the Suns continued to learn on the fly in Thursday’s 129-124 win, the rest of the league should be concerned about what happens once everyone else starts to soar alongside Devin Booker.
In Game 3, Booker was head-and-shoulders above the competition for the second game in a row.
“He must’ve heard me last game when I said he’s gotta do it every game,” Josh Okogie joked.
Being the best player on the court is easier to dismiss when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George aren’t on it, but what the Suns superstar is doing to carry this team as it navigates through this trial and error process shouldn’t be lost on anyone.
“I told him after Game 1, he was the thermostat for the team, and he set the tone and temperature for 48 minutes, not just from the start,” coach Monty Williams said. “To have him play that many minutes — and we needed it — and have that kind of production speaks to his ability to not just physically grind it out, but mentally grind it out.”
Finishing with a game-high 45 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks, Booker was sensational on both ends. He shot 18-for-29 from the floor, 3-for-7 from deep and 6-for-7 from the foul line, all while logging a game-high 45 minutes.
Devin Booker on what it’s like when he enters that zone: “I love it. This is my life. I dedicate my whole entire life and I have since a kid to this sport and this game.” pic.twitter.com/BlCZpzmYuQ
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) April 21, 2023
“All-time great performance,” Durant said of his new co-star. “It’s almost I expect stuff like that from him at this point in his career. But he set the tone, getting to the rim, making plays for others, just controlling the whole game. We’re gonna need him to continue to do that going forward.”
Booker has given incredible two-way effort despite only resting for 12 minutes of the entire series, and it doesn’t appear he’ll be slowing down any time soon.
“If it was up to me, I wouldn’t even have been out those 12 minutes,” he said.
If what Booker is doing right now feels momentous, it’s because it is. His 45 points, 3 blocks and 2 steals are literally unheard of in a playoff setting. He’s tied Amar’e Stoudemire for the second-most 30-point playoff games (15) in franchise history, trailing only Charles Barkley (16). Speaking of Chuck, he and Book are the only Suns to reach 45 points in multiple playoff outings.
Devin Booker now has 5 career playoff games with 40+ points.
More than Damian Lillard, Carmelo Anthony, Karl Malone, and Magic Johnson, to name a few
— Shane Young (@YoungNBA) April 21, 2023
Oh, and Booker just so happens to be leading all players in points for this year’s postseason (109 total, 15 more than the next-closest player) while also ranking second in “stocks” (steals plus blocks, with his 13 trailing only Anthony Davis’ 15).
So far in the series, Booker is averaging 36.3 points, 5.0 assists, 2.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game on .600/.412/.857 shooting splits. Like his torrid scoring run in March, what he’s doing early in these playoffs is impressive — with or without KD, Kawhi or PG being factored in.
However, as much as Williams correctly asserts they need a new word to describe Booker’s aggression, and that nothing has changed with his approach since KD’s arrival, there’s no question Book has benefitted from the floor-spacing and gravity of another elite scorer like Durant.
“I think that’s where he is, plus Kevin, and when we get stops and get out and run, that’s the other place where he’s been really dynamic,” Williams said. “Once you show him a crack or an alley, he’s gonna take it.”
In Game 3, Booker put his head down and got to the rim multiple times for chest-pumping and-1s. On a few of those forays into the paint, Durant was just a pass away, forcing his defender to stick to him like glue and allowing Booker clearer pathways to the basket.
“When you have two high-level scorers like us two, I think in the past, people always think, ‘There’s one basketball out there,'” Booker said. “But being a student of the game, both of us, and respecting each other’s game at a high level, I understand it’s easier for me to get open looks off of his first pass. I think he realizes the same thing, so I encourage them to double-team and throw any type of defense at them, and it was my turn to make ’em pay.”
On the first play in the clip above, Durant recounted how the defense was fixated on him as he prepared to come off an off-ball screen. That distraction gave Booker easy access through the help defense, exploding to the cup for a layup before the play even began.
“In so many ways,” Booker said when asked how Durant’s presence makes his life easier. “You can’t leave him. Obviously he draws a lot of attention, and a lot of the buckets I scored, I went right to him right after and said, ‘You opened that up for me.’ And he knows that, and I expect the Clippers to make an adjustment, try and take me away, and it’ll be his turn to do it.”
So far, though, the Suns are still waiting on it to be Durant’s “turn.” That’s also an incredibly odd way to frame it, since the guy just dropped 28 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals on 8-of-15 shooting in the quietest form imaginable.
“Kevin, you wouldn’t think he had 28 points just based on just watching the game, because it wasn’t that dynamic and it wasn’t a ton of wild plays,” Williams said. “And then you look up, he’s got 28, he’s 11-for-11 from the free-throw line.”
Durant should probably be taking more than 15 shots, and there have been some reasonable gripes about how often he’s been relegated to the corner as a floor-spacer, rather than utilized as an on-ball threat with otherworldly scoring ability. Even Williams acknowledged it with a joke after Game 3.
“I just feel bad for Kev sometimes, because he’s an expensive decoy out there,” Williams said. “He’s standing at the 28-foot hash and the defender is right in his face, and that gives Book a number of opportunities to attack the basket. Even when we run him in actions as a misdirection, sometimes two guys go with Kevin when he comes off of a screen, so that opens up the floor for everyone else.”
Quite literally, in the first example of this clip, Williams isn’t wrong!
However, as the rest of the clip shows, the flashes of Phoenix being able to find him in his spots are slowly becoming more frequent. It doesn’t feel like it after a performance like Game 3, but it really is an impressive feat for a group that’s figuring it out on the fly in their 11th game together.
“I feel like I found a rhythm and a flow when the ball come to me,” Durant said. “I know how to play the game of basketball, first off. So the ball will come to me. Just make the right play, man. Just be ready.”
It hasn’t been perfectly smooth sailing, despite what Phoenix’s 10-1 record with Durant suggests. The offense was stagnant at times, and four of KD’s eight buckets came in transition. Game 3 provided quite a few examples of either the Suns being unable to hit him in his preferred spots in the half-court, or Durant committing one of his six turnovers on the night when he finally got the ball.
Even when they found him in the right spot, sometimes he just missed:
KD is one of the most seamless-fit superstars in NBA history, but under the pressure of playoff defense and the ever-changing coverages of a coach like Tyronn Lue, the Suns are having to undergo this learning process under harsher circumstances.
Not only is that an adjustment for the team’s core four of Booker, Durant, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton, but it’s also a trial by fire for the bench guys who are trying to make an impact in much shorter stints.
“It’s just a matter of spacing and just understanding who’s on the court and where you can get your shots,” Damion Lee said. “And that’s one thing that always comes from watching film, staying in the game, seeing the rotations and seeing where those guys are comfortable in their spots. Like, understanding where C likes the ball, where Book, where K, where DA all like the ball. Those are our four horses, but outside of that, for the rest of us, it’s just finding the right spots, finding where we can be effective and where we can be aggressive.”
Fortunately, the Suns are led by two superstars who play the right way. It might not seem like it for Booker after he recorded 45 points to 3 assists, but Williams praised his ability to swing the ball where it needed to go, wondering aloud how many hockey assists he must have had.
Durant, who finished with 5 assists, drew similar praise from his head coach.
“Kev makes the right plays,” Williams said. “I think that’s another thing that not many people talk about. They talk about the scoring, but the ability to make the right pass no matter who it is, whether it’s [Bismack Biyombo] in the pocket, DA in the pocket or Torrey [Craig] in the corner. I think that gives those guys confidence to know that a guy like Kevin is willing to get off the ball and will trust them with it.”
Case in point: the monumental 3-pointer Torrey Craig hit from the corner with 1:24 remaining to extend Phoenix’s lead back to six. Durant made multiple reads where he trusted his teammates in Game 3, but that one was particularly bold, since the Clippers had all the momentum after cutting the deficit down to three.
“I trust TC in that moment,” Durant said. “And he took it with all the confidence in the world.”
As Damion Lee notes, it’s a lot easier for role players to shoot with confidence when a guy like Kevin-Freaking-Durant puts his faith in them.
“Those guys are all-world talent, but for them to trust us, trust in other guys, it’s huge,” Lee said. “It’s a huge vote of confidence, and that’s something that you like from your stars.”
So far in the first round, the Suns have yet to get a definitive Kevin Durant game. Kawhi dominated Game 1 and it’s been Booker ever since, but it’s somewhat frightening that Durant hasn’t gone supernova and is still averaging 26.7 points, 7.0 assists, 7.0 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game on .510/.286/.963 shooting splits.
This gritty matchup against a determined opponent with a master tactician coach could ultimately help the Suns as they continue building cohesion with their new superstar. Durant learned early in his career that he couldn’t simply focus on scoring, and after all the teams he’s played on and all the superstars he’s played with, he understands the value of finding a more balanced offense.
“You gotta switch up your attack,” he explained. “As I got older in the league, you see different types of defenses and you learn how to play the game. I learned how to play the game from different angles, different positions, and I’m able to go back and forth from different roles on the team. So I think that’s the reason why I’m able to fit in with other guys, but it’s a lot of experience, a lot of bad losses, a lot of watching film that just helped me get to this point.”
The Suns don’t have a lot of experience or film together, and their only bad loss came in Game 1. All things considered, stringing wins together against playoff opponents — shorthanded or not — could pay dividends once all these on-the-fly adjustments actually take flight. In the meantime, it’s reassuring that Booker is soaring to pick up the slack.