It’s a tale as old as time, or at least as old as 2015: Devin Booker needs help.
That feels like a ludicrous statement for a Phoenix Suns team that has Kevin Durant, but it became abundantly hard to ignore, yet again, in their 118-102 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 on Tuesday.
It was the first time all postseason Booker shot worse than 47 percent from the field, and without his supernova routine that Phoenix has become worryingly reliant upon, they were wiped off the court in the first and third quarters.
For most players — and even quite a few stars — Booker’s 28 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists on 8-of-19 shooting wouldn’t be the end of the world. It wasn’t the most efficient night for an NBA superstar, but on some championship-caliber teams, it wouldn’t be enough to sink the ship.
Unfortunately, the Suns have been using Booker to plug multiple shots across the bow for weeks now, and it’s become increasingly more difficult to fill them.
That was especially true on a night where Book landed awkwardly near the end of the first quarter and was slow to get up:
Booker was 4-for-5 from the field at that point. He’d finish 4-for-14 the rest of the way, and he came up wincing midway through the third quarter after running from sideline to sideline trying to come up with a steal:
As always, Devin Booker insisted he was “feeling fine” after the game.
“Everybody’s dealing with something, man,” he deflected. “It’s that point of the season. Just a little bruise.”
“I think he’s okay,” coach Monty Williams agreed. “He had like a sore foot, but we wouldn’t put him back out there if we didn’t think he was okay.”
The problem is, whether his shooting struggles were due to his foot, the different looks Denver was throwing his way or a great player simply having an off night, the Suns found no recourse on the road. And that’s exactly the problem: Devin Booker shouldn’t have to be making history, scoring 35-40 points on damn near 80 percent shooting, for his team to have a chance to win.
Before the game, Nuggets coach Michael Malone hit the nail on the head: Denver had to make anyone else beat them.
“We have to give Devin Booker different looks,” Malone said. “It can’t be the same thing for 48 minutes, he’s a great player. This guy had two 40-point games in the NBA Finals. You have to give ’em different looks somehow, some way. So we’ll look to be aggressive with him at times, and other times, we may not be as aggressive. Try to keep him off-balance as best as possible, but if we’re gonna go down, I still want somebody other than Devin Booker to beat us, because that guy is lethal.”
Again, that last bit feels like a wildly outlandish thing to say about a team that has Kevin Durant on it, but so far in this series, he’s only shown up in Slim Reaper form in Phoenix. In Game 1, Durant’s 29 points on 12-of-19 shooting were offset by 7 turnovers. In Game 2, he went 10-for-27 from the floor. And in Game 5, while he finished with 26 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists, he only shot 10-for-24 from the floor, committing five turnovers and four fouls.
Durant started the game 1-for-8 as the Suns quickly found themselves in a double-digit hole, and once again, it felt like one of the league’s all-time greatest scorers was pressing.
“Well, we got down so early, I understand what he was thinking,” Williams said. “He probably felt like we needed a boost, so we just have to figure that out.”
Durant said he wasn’t really thinking about forcing the issue, but admitted he could’ve taken a better shots in the opening frame.
“You want to see the ball go in the rim, especially when you’re struggling shooting the ball, down 10, 11, you want to get it all back,” Durant said. “We lean on defense when we can’t make shots, and we were struggling a bit. Tonight we didn’t lean too much into it as much as we’re supposed to.”
It’s probably a little more difficult to lean into defense when those two are tasked with carrying the offense to dizzying extents.
The tale of the first three quarters was telling. Phoenix trailed by 11 after the first, giving up 35 points. They held Denver to just 17 points in the second quarter, but watched them explode for 39 in the third.
“I think our poise wasn’t at the level that it should have been tonight, because we had it in the second quarter, and all we did was chip away from a defensive perspective, and then it made the offense easier,” Williams said. “I thought in the first and third, we tried to win the game with our offense only. And you can see, 35 and 39 [points]. That’s nowhere near the standard that we look forward to when we put our defense on the floor.”
The lack of defensive resistance to start the second half was jarring. The Suns had cut their deficit to three points by halftime, but gave up a 20-4 run in the first four minutes of the third quarter.
“I think we just got a little bit complacent,” Booker said. “Shoulda came out of half more locked in and ready to go.”
Booker’s own shooting struggles were part of the problem, but again, the Suns desperately need KD to start playing like KD…on top of their other three starters needing to play like, well, starters.
Josh Okogie is only a starter in name at this point, considering he’s logged 10, 17 and now 8 minutes over the last three games. He shot a more manageable 3-for-7 in the two Phoenix games, but following his 0-for-3 performance in Game 5, he’s now 2-for-9 on the road in this series, including 0-for-5 from deep.
The Nuggets are barely bothering to guard him, but Okogie is hardly the only offensive liability at the moment. Deandre Ayton’s 14 points on 7-of-12 shooting seem fine, but he’s barely been an offensive threat, and even worse, his pick-and-roll defense in Game 5 was brutal. Cam Payne shot 60 percent, but only took five shots.
Looking to the bench doesn’t provide much relief. After his 19-point explosion in Game 5, Landry Shamet went 2-for-6. T.J. Warren was 2-for-7. The only reserve with an offensive pulse was Terrence Ross, who chipped in 9 points on 3-of-4 shooting from downtown. On a rare night this series where neither Booker nor Durant could pick apart the defense with their scoring, their playmaking against frequent double-teams was also neutralized by their teammates’ misses.
“They ran two or three guys at Kevin and Book tonight, and so that can be hard,” Williams said. “That means other guys gotta be able to knock down shots. I thought Terrence hit a few, but we just didn’t get enough production on the backside of our offense to help Kevin and Book.”
The Suns’ offense lacked movement in Game 5, and Williams noted how stagnant they got in their Double Drag sets (which they refer to as “pick-pick action”). They were also unable to get stops and get out in transition, getting outscored 31-21 in fast break points.
Most of the Suns’ issues are correctable, especially heading back to Phoenix where both teams have looked completely different. That’s good news for their bench and the rest of their role players, but if they want to reach the Western Conference Finals, they’ll have to take care of business at home before finding a way to beat the Nuggets in Denver, where they went 34-7 during the regular season and are a perfect 6-0 in the playoffs.
Phoenix needs KD to be KD, and for his part, his experience with elimination games will hopefully come through in a big way.
“It’s just about going out there and playing every possession like it’s your last, really,” Durant said. “We’ve seen this team for five games now, and they’ve seen us, so it’s all about who wants it more.”
So what goes into wanting it more? Cam Payne providing more than just pace would help until Chris Paul returns. Deandre Ayton even somewhat challenging Nikola Jokic again would too. And the rest of the bench putting some semblance of points on the board could ultimately swing the series.
It’s a tall task for all of those stars to align, but the Suns’ unavoidable strategy of “Booker and KD do everything” has Phoenix on the brink of elimination. Now comes the part where either the season ends, or everyone embraces the challenge of an elimination Game 6 at home.
“That’s all you can do,” Booker said, echoing his locker room message after Game 2. “You gotta be excited for these opportunities, you have to be excited for this chance to do something special versus a really good team. We have all the answers to the test now, so all the game plan stuff comes out the window. It’s just a dogfight, and you have to be ready to go.”