Facing a 2-0 series deficit, the absence of Chris Paul and the knowledge that no team in NBA playoff history had ever come back from being down 3-0, Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns played with desperation Friday night. In a 121-114 win in Game 3 of their second-round matchup with the Denver Nuggets, they unlocked a thrilling — albeit unsustainable — formula to make it a series again.

Fueled by another virtuoso performance from Booker, another good-but-not-quite-transcendent outing from Kevin Durant, improved contributions from the role players and an electric crowd, Phoenix did what needed to be done.

The question is, how much of what the Suns discovered is replicable? Should the Suns feel good about their chances in this series heading into Game 4, or are they still facing an uphill climb in their pursuit of a title?

Here’s a look at five things that stood out from a must-win Game 3.

1. Devin Booker has been the best player in the 2023 NBA Playoffs

Eight games is a limited sample size, but it was impossible not to think it while Devin Booker was busy torching the Nuggets for 47 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds and 3 steals on 20-of-25 shooting: There has not been a single player in these 2023 NBA Playoffs who’s been better.

For emphasis: In a do-or-die game, facing an 0-2 deficit, playing without Chris Paul, and dealing with a barrage of traps and double-teams for most of the night, Booker tied his playoff career high with 47 points, made 20 of his 25 shot attempts and was decisively the best player on a court that included Kevin Durant, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.

“That’s who he is,” coach Monty Williams said. “That’s his makeup. He doesn’t run from the tough stuff.”

Friday marked the third time in eight playoff games this season where Booker dropped 45 or more points. He’s scored the most points through a player’s first eight playoff games (295) since Michael Jordan back in 1990 (325); recorded as many 45-point playoff games (four) as every other Suns player in franchise history combined; and he now has more 40-point playoff games than Hall-of-Famers like Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Kawhi Leonard, Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis.

With each passing game, Booker continues to live up to the “Be Legendary” message inscribed on his shoes.

“Can’t say enough about Book,” Durant said. “I’m at a loss for words. Just how he approaches the game, how he’s just the leader of his team and this organization, how he brings it every single day, and we just follow his imprint and we rally around him. Tonight was one of those nights.”

These types of performances aren’t new for Suns fans, but witnessing Booker play like he’s the best player on the floor while sharing it with multiple MVPs still feels surreal at times. Well, to everyone except Booker, at least.

“This is all I’ve dreamed of as a kid,” Booker said. “I’ve dedicated a lot of my life, I moved away from my family when I was young to pursue being in these moments. And just the people that came before me, man. My dad played, and just being a fan of the game, it was my way through life. So it’s not time to fold up now.”

Included among the list of believers: Kevin Durant. According to KD, Booker has been on his radar since he visited his basketball camp as a junior in high school. Durant kept an eye on him as he was coming up through the league, and after Book’s infamous 70-point game, KD added him to the list of players whose box score he’d check on a nightly basis before then watching his highlights.

So even though Durant joked he won’t expect 20-for-25 shooting out of Book on a nightly basis, he’s more than aware of what the Suns superstar can do.

“I don’t understand why this is such a surprise to anybody,” Durant said. “He’s been doing this since day one. They might not have been playoff wins, but he’s showed his skills since his rookie year. A lot of people overlooked that and then see him go 45 and think it’s something new. Nah, he’s always been on this type of time, and we gotta continue to keep feeding the hot hand. But he’s making good plays.”

That’s also where the beauty of Booker’s recent play shines through. In the past, Book was still capable of putting up 40-plus points by forcing the issue; now, he’s in such a groove with the accompanying talent around him that he can do it almost effortlessly, in the flow of the game, while also racking up a team-high 9 assists.

“I think putting a few more shooters around him may have helped him see more space and get to the basket and that kind of thing,” Williams said. “But I just think it’s his makeup. He understands not having Chris puts more on his plate, but I don’t think he forced it the way that you would think. I think he allowed the game to happen naturally, and then where there was opportunities for him to push the issue, he was pretty efficient.”

Booker has been quick to credit the extra space Durant’s presence provides for him, and in Game 3, adding offensive weapons like Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren helped even further. Book struck the balance between his high-scoring performance, getting Durant touches on another off night, and keeping everyone else involved.

When the offense faltered early, he supplied 18 first-quarter points to keep Phoenix afloat. When the game needed more KD, he deferred. And when the double-teams demanded he find the open man, which he said is his favorite brand of basketball that he invites, Booker made the right play. It was a tightrope act the Point God himself would’ve been proud of.

“Just being ultra-aggressive,” Booker said. “I understand that opens things up for my teammates when I play that way, and at the same time, just taking what the defense gives me. A lot of it was in transition, blocked shots, rebounds, and then just taking off, and KD draws so much attention it left me wide open for a couple of 3s and just getting the easy ones.”

The end result? Another performance threatening to crack Devin Booker’s top-five playoff games, and some extremely high praise from a future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.

“Just his love for the game, his humility for just life in general, he’s a team builder,” Durant said. “All the things you want in a superstar, he brings it. And he doesn’t say much about it. A lot of people don’t write fluff stories or pieces about what he brings every single day, but we see it and we appreciate it, and you’re starting to see it on a national scale the last few years with us being a successful team.”

2. Suns still have a Deandre Ayton problem

It’s regrettable we can’t dwell on the best moments of Game 3, but it’d be irresponsible to overlook one of its most damning aspects. Booker “only” played 42 minutes and Durant “only” played 43, but they found little relief from the remaining healthy member of the Suns’ core four.

Phoenix is still waiting for Playoff DA to make an appearance, and they’re running out of time for him to do so.

In the first half, Ayton was quietly effective. He missed a few looks around the basket, but he was setting good screens, rolling with intention, out-rebounding Nikola Jokic and had a big block on Jamal Murray at the rim that fueled a Suns bucket on the other end.

But then the second half started, and the increasing number of gaffes on both ends became impossible to ignore. He shot 2-for-6 overall for 4 points, providing zero relief offensively. He missed point blank bunnies that had a roaring home crowd audibly groaning in disappointment when he didn’t dunk it.

And worst of all, he was a revolving door on defense during one third-quarter stretch that saw Denver climb back into the game. It got so bad the Suns opted to close with Jock Landale instead.

“Guys have tough games, and DA didn’t have his best tonight,” Williams said. “But it’s great to be able to have your brother out there that can pick it up for you.”

However, that decision prompted an uncomfortable sequence on the bench where DA left Chris Paul hanging on a few high fives, sat on the end of the bench and hung his head during the timeout.

To his and the Suns’ credit, several teammates tried to console Ayton, who looked like he was down on himself. Damion Lee and Cam Payne offered him words of encouragement, and by the next timeout, Ayton was up on the sidelines cheering on his teammates and actively offering Landale words of advice — something Landale and Durant were quick to point out.

“I know he still stayed into the game regardless,” Durant said. “He was on the same page with us, encouraging us, cheering for us when he was out on the bench. So I think DA just wants to be out there, he wants to contribute, he wants to play well every single night. He wants to do everything right, so sometimes that can be a little frustrating when you don’t get the opportunity to showcase what you can do sometimes. But that’s just the nature of a team.”

That may be the case, but for a few weeks now, Ayton’s subpar performances have become the elephant in the room, an unspoken problem that Phoenix’s body language doesn’t always support as fervently as their positive comments in postgame pressers. Booker and Durant continue to back their starting center, partly because the Suns need him to make it out of this series, let alone win a championship.

“We’ve been around long enough to understand every night’s not gonna be your night,” Booker said. “It’s just doing other things to make up for it. If you make a shot, miss a layup, like, you don’t know what’s gonna happen there, but energy and effort always has to be high, especially around this time. You can’t get flustered, you can’t get in your own head, and I could see that a little bit with him today. So it’s my job to just pump him up. It’s next possession. Like, who cares how you play, all it comes down to is if you win or lose around this time of year.”

3. Suns are still waiting on a vintage Kevin Durant game

It feels strange to say about a guy who dropped 39 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists and 2 blocks in Game 3, but the Suns are still waiting on that vintage Kevin Durant performance where he looks like the undisputed best player on the floor.

“I’m not ‘figuring it out,’ I just gotta make shots, to be honest,” Durant said. “I missed some good ones. I’m rushing some shots. I’m thinking too much out there, and I think that’s all on me more so than trying to get comfortable with the team.”

Maybe it’s because Booker aggressively seized that title of “best player on the floor” for himself. Maybe it’s because KD shot 13-for-31 after going 10-for-27 in Game 2, or maybe it wasn’t as big an issue with A) the Suns winning and B) DA’s struggles stealing the spotlight. But at some point, Durant is going to have one of those masterful performances where he simply dominates, and the Suns may require one of those nights in Game 4 to even up this series.

“Kev is still finding his way and his rhythm, and he had 39,” Williams pointed out. “And if you look at the numbers, that’s not a typical Kevin Durant efficient game. So we still have that to look forward to, I believe.”

The key for Durant overcoming another rough shooting night was getting to the free-throw line. He finished 14-for-16 from the charity stripe in Game 3, accounting for 16 of the Suns’ 18 free throws…with the other two coming in garbage time.

Durant has learned throughout his career that teams will try to defend him aggressively and with plenty of physicality. When that happens, he makes it his goal to get downhill and use their strategy of funneling him toward help defenders against them.

“I’m just trying to drive,” he explained. “I missed so many good looks early, the second quarter, I just tried to put my head down and get to the rim and just get closer to the rim. They were playing extra aggressive, so their hands on me, their bodies there, they just sitting in the paint sometimes. So I was just being aggressive to the rim. I try to get down there when I can’t make shots, and tonight was one of those nights I couldn’t find one to fall. So just try to be effective in other ways.”

Hilariously enough, the Suns continue to make history thanks to their dynamic duo, which combined for 86 points and scored or assisted on 106 of their 121 points.

It’s scary what might happen if Durant finally has his first defining playoff performance in a Suns uniform, but if it happens in Game 4, they’ll likely be heading back to Denver with a tied series.

“It’s frustrating not making shots, ’cause that’s what I’m paid to do,” Durant said. “That’s what I do is make shots. But there’s also a couple of times where you just gotta continue to figure it out and push through it. I was able to make some there late, make some there in third, some in the second. It was in spurts, but just keep being aggressive, man. I’m looking forward to next game.”

4. Jock Landale and the Suns bench come through

Jock Landale’s high-energy night off the bench deserves its own attention, independent from the conversation about Ayton. The Suns’ need to give him minutes against Denver’s small-ball bench lineups and allow him to punish mismatches was part of our keys for Game 3, and both Monty Williams and Landale admitted they missed opportunities to do so in Game 2.

That wasn’t the case again Friday night, even as Landale finished with 6 points in 22 minutes off the bench.

“Jock was giving us great energy,” Williams said. “I thought his pressure on the rim just in transition opened up a ton of lanes for all of our guys to attack the paint tonight in transition. And then he just scrapped. I mean, you couldn’t point out anything that he did from a high-level skill perspective, but he just scrapped.”

It wasn’t a high-scoring night for Landale, but he chipped in 9 rebounds and a steal while going a perfect 3-for-3 from the floor. He was physical with Jokic defensively, put pressure on the offensive boards and made the types of hustle plays that seemed glaring compared to what DA’s provided recently. Even something as simple as sprinting down the floor in transition helped open things up.

“Jock ran the full court and sealed somebody in the middle, which opened up a layup for me,” Booker recalled. “So the guys around me are making it easier for me.”

Williams noted before the game how Denver had been winning the non-Jokic minutes with their unconventional bench lineup, but that there were opportunities to exploit it. Landale was the key in doing so, but he also handled the task of making life challenging for the Joker down the stretch.

“His energy was incredible tonight,” Durant said. “For him to guard Jokic one-on-one most of the night, him and DA, one-on-one most of the night — I mean, [Jokic] still played well, but it’s still a tough job to guard him and not getting fouled out, and he stayed in the game, rebounded well, just played with energy. We’re gonna need that in Game 4.”

“I just thought he fought,” Williams agreed. “I thought his competitive edge was what we needed. Nobody stops Jokic, he’s a two-time MVP. But I thought Jock competed every possession. And then when we got the ball, whether it was a rebound or a turnover, he was out. I thought that put pressure on their transition defense. So when you play with that kind of effort, I think it allows for you to have a chance against a guy that we know is all-world.”

It wasn’t just Landale who helped the second unit. Everyone knows role players play better at home, and although Williams waited too long to give guys like Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren a look, they answered the call in Game 3.

Ross didn’t have the best shooting night, going 2-for-7 overall and 1-for-6 from 3, but even his 5 points providing some scoring punch, and the Suns were a +8 in his 14 minutes. Warren, meanwhile, added 7 points, 3 rebounds and 1 block on 3-of-7 shooting. He was a team-high +20 in his 26 minutes off the bench and was part of the Suns’ lineup to close out the game.

“It’s something that we felt like could give us a bit of a jolt, not just from a scoring perspective, but a big body,” Williams said. “I thought he made a couple of plays just because he’s big and strong, he was able to put pressure on the ball, he had one steal, and they fouled him right after the steal. A bit of a presence in the paint, just having a grown man down there that can absorb contact. And then at the end, he’s a guy that’s not afraid to take and make a shot.”

Warren missed one corner 3 late in the fourth quarter with the Suns clinging to a five-point lead, but on the next possession, Booker found him in the same spot. This time, Warren knocked it down, and on the next play, Book hit him again for a floater that bounced in.

“We have a longstanding relationship, so I believe in Tony to the fullest,” Booker said. “It’s actually what I was yelling at him after he made the second shot, and then I went back to him the third time, and he was able to get the floater too.”

Booker joked his message to Tony Buckets was “I believe in you” with “a couple bleeps” thrown in, but their ability to step up despite being out of the rotation helped save the Suns’ season.

“A few of the guys you’re talking about haven’t played this whole series or last series, so big shout out to them for being ready,” Booker said. “T-Ross, T.J. come in, don’t know when they’re gonna play, and that’s a tough assignment just thrown into down 0-2, playoff game, high intensity, and you’re just thrown into the fire. So big ups to them.”

5. Pushing the tempo with Cam Payne helped

This is not to say the Suns are better off with Cam Payne replacing Chris Paul or Jock Landale replacing Deandre Ayton, but it was telling to see how much more potent the offense can be when their point guard plays with speed and their center plays with a high motor.

The Suns knew heading into the game that starting Payne would help them pick up the tempo. From there, it’d be a balancing act of allowing him to do what he does best while still setting the table on offense.

“I think for Cam, it’s the balance of being who he is but also recognizing the way we run our offense and getting other guys involved without taking away from his game,” Williams said.

Payne only finished with 7 points and 6 assists on 3-of-9 shooting, but his layup in semi-transition to get the game started immediately sent a message to Denver: They were going to play at a much faster tempo.

“It was amazing,” Williams said. “I thought his first layup was signature Cam. He missed the one in Denver, and tonight he was at the rim. Even when he didn’t look to score, he was putting so much pressure on them in transition that it’s hard to match up. And we needed it.”

For his part, Payne was just happy to be back on the floor after missing time with low back soreness and then being out of the rotation for a brief spell. Making more shots remains his main focus ahead of Game 4, but he was active on both ends of the floor, utilizing his speed and active hands to rack up deflections and routinely put pressure on Denver’s defense.

“Push the pace, man, kinda change the game,” Payne said of his mindset. “What I’d be saying to myself, like, ‘Make an impact on the game. Like, join the series.’ That’s the type of things I tell myself, but playing with pace. I feel like we did that good tonight. We kinda was running up the score a little bit, getting easy baskets, try our best to get easy baskets, and I feel like we did that tonight by pushing the pace.”


Gerald Bourguet serves as PHNX's reporter, writing savant and podcast co-host for all things Phoenix Suns. He's been a basketball fan since the day he could say "Michael Jordan," graduated from the Walter Cronkite School at ASU in 2013 with a BA and MA in sports journalism and has been covering the NBA ever since. As a credentialed media member since 2015, Gerald dealt with his Suns-related depression through his writing...until the Bubble Suns changed everything. Now, the Artist Formerly Known as Zewio is just as excited to cover winning basketball as Suns fans are to enjoy watching it.