All series long, Tyronn Lue and the LA Clippers had thrown junk defenses at Kevin Durant to try and stop one of the greatest scorers in NBA history. And all series long, Devin Booker made them pay for that approach, culminating in a 47-point detonation in the Phoenix Suns’ Game 5 closeout win.
Tuesday’s 136-130 victory was the latest virtuoso playoff performance on Booker’s ever-expanding resume, but it also signaled just how scary the Suns might become with enough games alongside KD under their belts.
“I hate to have him in the corner sometimes, but they will not leave him, and it opens up the rest of the court for everybody else,” Booker said of Durant. “And I think our team is just figuring that out, that just him standing out there makes everything easier for everybody.”
In the Suns’ first closeout win at home since 2007, Booker tied his playoff career high with a game-high 47 points, 10 assists, 8 rebounds and 2 steals on 19-of-27 shooting, including 4-of-7 from 3-point range.
It was a masterclass in every sense, and Josh Okogie described it best in the most ironic way possible.
“Indescribable,” he mused. “Can’t describe it. You’ve gotta watch it.”
The third quarter in particular was where watching came with its own reward. Booker scored 25 points in the third, shooting 10-for-11, providing half of the Suns’ points in a 50-point quarter and outscoring the Clippers by himself in the period.
“That’s just Book,” coach Monty Williams said. “He would tell you he’s trained and waited for moments like that, and I’m just glad to have him on my side.”
Even Durant — an all-time great who’s played with the likes of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kyrie Irving — couldn’t help but get caught up in the experience.
“It was spiritual,” Durant said. “I don’t scream too much in the games no more as I got older, but when we hit that 3 at the top of the key, I felt the energy, and I know everybody in our crowd felt it. So we feed off of his aggression — not just us on the team, but Suns fans watching TV, Suns fans in the arena. His impact and his presence just means a lot to us, so that was incredible to see and to be a part of.”
With the performance, Booker now has the most 30-point and 40-point games in Suns playoff history. He’s the first player in NBA history to drop 45 points and 10 assists in a series-clinching win, is tied with KD for the 11th-most points scored through any player’s first 37 playoff games, and he’s the first guard in NBA playoff history to put up 35 points per game on 60 percent shooting over any five-game span in the postseason:
Devin Booker is the 1st guard in NBA playoff history to average at least 35 PPG on 60% shooting or better across a 5-game span in the same postseason, per @Stathead.
Other players to do it: Kareem, Giannis, Elgin Baylor, Bernard King, Kawhi, Mikan and Shaq.
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) April 26, 2023
This was not some outlier, of course. We covered how Durant’s arrival has helped Booker soar just a few days ago, and a few days before that, we broke down how he demolished the Clippers with 38 points in Game 3.
But now that the series is done and Booker has finished torturing this unfortunate Clippers team, it’s worth mentioning that even without their two best players, LA had the defensive personnel, depth and mastermind coaching to make Phoenix work every step of the way.
And yet, the Suns have been the NBA’s most efficient isolation offense in these 2023 NBA Playoffs. For all the (justifiable) concern over getting Durant more touches, he still averaged a 28-8-6 stat line for the series. And because the Clippers keyed in on KD, Booker had the most ruthlessly efficient series of his career, averaging 37.2 points in 43.1 minutes per game while shooting 60.2 percent overall and 46.7 percent from 3.
Everyone knows Booker can score, so him leading all players in scoring this postseason isn’t too surprising. Throw in his 69.7 percent true shooting and it’s a little more stunning, but the additional scoring opportunities aren’t the reason Devin Booker has established himself as a legitimate two-way superstar. That comes down to his defense, his drives and his dishes that have elevated his game to new heights so far in these playoffs.
Devin Booker’s defense
Remember the days when Devin Booker was known as a horrible defender? Booker sure does.
“I take a lot of pride in it, and I always have,” he said. “I had a reputation early in my career that I couldn’t do it. Being a part of a losing team was tough, and I had a lot of weight on my shoulders.”
Although Booker was prone to getting beat backdoor and off the dribble, Williams recalled that in his very first season in the Valley, he envisioned his franchise star becoming a lead defender for this team.
“When I first got here, it was one of the things that I talked about was his ability to compete on the ball and pick-and-roll coverages, the way he got over screens, the way he battled if there was a late switch situation, and he didn’t duck a matchup,” Williams said. “The story that I go back to, my first year here, we were playing against somebody — and I won’t say their name, but they’re a big-time player — and I get a text in the middle of the night from Book. I didn’t have him on that guy, and he’s like, ‘Coach, I want him.’ That spoke volumes to me.”
Of course, there’s a big difference between seeking out tough matchups and actually handling them well. The absences of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George deprived us of a true superstar matchup, but Booker did what good defenders do, dominating every assignment that was thrown his way.
According to NBA.com, the Clippers converted just 37.1 percent of their shots against Booker — an even more impressive feat considering he’s defended more shots than anyone in this postseason through Tuesday’s games. He’s also leading the league in steals this postseason (2.6 per game), ranks third in “stocks” (trailing only Anthony Davis and Anthony Edwards) thanks to his 1.0 blocks per game, and ranks third in total deflections (trailing Chris Paul and Edwards).
Booker is not only a stout positional defender these days, but he’s a defensive playmaker who flies all over the court getting deflections, picking pockets and stopping shots at the rim:
“Doing it collectively with a group of five with everybody locked into the same scheme, it allows everybody to be aggressive on the ball,” Booker said. “And you know you have help behind you, people covering up your mistakes.”
Trusting one’s teammates to cover mistakes is all fine and dandy, but even with the improvements in scheme and personnel, Booker always thought he was a good defender, even getting upset when his coach would take him off tougher matchups. Deandre Ayton said it’s hard not to fall in line watching Booker sacrifice his body through screens to defend an opponent’s best players.
“Seeing the type of two-way superstar he’s turning into is insane,” Ayton said. “It’s contagious, because if one of us mess up on the defensive end while he’s this intense? Oh yeah, you’re gonna hear about it. So it’s really contagious, man, and that’s what the team needs.”
The Book Drive
One of the biggest concerns about Phoenix’s offense has been its reliance on midrange jump shots. The Suns don’t put much pressure on the basket, ranking dead last in frequency of shots at the rim.
Since Durant arrived and the playoff switch flipped, however, Book has made a more concerted effort to attack the paint. It’s a natural byproduct of the extra attention KD receives.
“Kevin gets frustrated with the contact and having guys draped all over him, but there’s a benefit: If you’re gonna be all over him in that way, it’s gonna create space,” Williams reasoned. “But I also feel like there’s a determination by Book to force the issue, to take up that vacuum and get to the basket.”
Five games against one shorthanded playoff opponent is obviously a small sample size, but Booker ranks third in total drives after Game 5. Even better, he’s shooting an impressive 66 percent on those drives, which is the highest percentage among all players with at least 30 drives this postseason.
Whether it’s beating defenders off the bounce, attacking small-ball lineups that lack rim protectors, punishing opponents for focusing too much on Durant or finishing through the trees, Booker had no problem taking the Clippers to the basket over and over again.
“His ability to not just shoot the ball but get to the basket and take the contact is where I’ve seen him grow the last two years,” Williams said. “He’s getting all the way to the rim, guys are hitting him, and he’s still finishing plays.”
Booker has scored the second-most points on drives this postseason, due in small part to the gravity of a scorer like Durant and a rim-roller like Ayton. But for a guy who was already giving so much offensively, to see him flying around defensively and putting his head down and getting to the basket? That requires a level of stamina and physicality that’s off the charts.
“It’s what he’s been doing this series,” Williams said after Game 3. “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. 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.”
Devin Booker dishes
Not long ago, Booker and Chris Paul had a new nickname for themselves: “Swish and Dish.” Booker, the scorer, was obviously “Swish,” while CP3, the floor general, was “Dish.”
But what happens now, when Booker’s playmaking has somehow made him worthy of the “Dish” moniker too?
For Williams, it’s been Book’s ability to stay aggressive against certain coverages while also stretching the defense to create offense for others.
“That’s where I think the beauty of Book lies,” Williams said. “He’s not opposed to making other guys better or giving them the ball, and he’s adopted the ‘share the ball’ mentality since we’ve been here. And I think that’s what allows for us to be efficient.”
Bookers 6.4 assists per game rank 13th among all playoff performers so far, and his teammates have credited him with not only being a step ahead of their opponent, but even the coaching staff at times as well.
“It’s just how he’s driving us right now — making plays for others, scoring for himself, seeing the game,” Landry Shamet explained. “Seeing the game at a really high level, knowing what they’re doing, what they’re trying to do, and him almost making calls before coach and them can.”
From driving and kicking, to bending defenses in the pick-and-roll, to zinging one-handed, cross-court passes to the open shooter in the weak-side corner, Booker is an unfair threat as a facilitator, not just a scorer.
Booker credits his early years under Earl Watson, Jay Triano and Igor Kokoskov for allowing him the room to make mistakes and learn from them.
“Early in my career, I was just thrown into the fire,” Booker said. “The ball was put into my hands, and I had the opportunity to play through mistakes when Earl was here, when Jay was here, when Igor was here. Those guys just believed in me through turnovers, through just being a young kid trying to learn the game, and with the ability to score, I was thrown a lot of defenses at me.”
But even under Williams, who routinely emphasizes taking what the defense gives, Chris Paul said he’s seen Booker make leaps as a playmaker since he came to the desert three seasons ago.
“We got so many weapons on our team that the coolest part for me has been seeing him be a creator,” Paul said. “Seeing those cross-court corner passes that he makes now, reading the low man. So being together with him now for three years, it’s been cool to see how he sees that stuff.”
Book turns the page
Hearing Durant refer to his Game 5 performance as “spiritual,” Booker smirked. He then answered a question about what that kind of high praise meant coming from a Hall-of-Famer like KD.
“To even be sitting up here with him right now is kinda surreal,” he said. “But just competing at the highest level, iron sharpens iron, and even getting the work that you guys don’t see in the practice facility together. All-Star break, I remember working in there together, playing two-on-two, I don’t take none of it for granted.”
As the phrase implies, “iron sharpening iron” is a two-way street. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Durant is already taking things from Booker’s game.
“You see somebody like Book and you see his journey, you see his work ethic and love for the game, you try to pull some stuff from him too,” Durant said. “So it’s always iron sharpening iron, and getting the opportunity to play with some of the best players of all time is something that is only gonna make my game better and just make my story better.”
Of course, the storybook ending would be winning the franchise’s first championship in over 50 years of existence. That will require the Suns to strike the right balance between iso basketball and movement offense in the playoffs, using KD as a floor-spacer while keeping him involved, and Booker still averaging gargantuan numbers.
But if they can find the right harmony between one of the league’s most malleable superstars and the guy who’s already punishing opponents for treating him like the second fiddle, all those difficult lessons from his early years will finally pay off in the form of Book’s most promising chapter yet.
“I don’t take any chance to do something special for granted,” Booker said. “Just being from a young team to an established team now is just something totally different. But I wouldn’t change my journey for anybody else’s. There’s not many young players in the league that just get to get thrown into the fire and play through mistakes and learn through mistakes. So it’s tough taking them Ls early on, but I think I got to develop my game, and I have people that believed in me, an organization that believed in me, and I just took it from there.”