NBA Playoffs, Phoenix Suns

Devin Booker owned the playoff moment he waited years for with the Suns

Devin Booker owned his first big playoff moment with the Phoenix Suns.

Some bad analysts with some bad takes from the last few years owe the bad man an apology.

Over the first few seasons of his career on losing Phoenix Suns teams, Devin Booker was “just a scorer.” An “empty stats player.” A “looter in a riot.” Every year, there was something different to critique about his game. When he scored, it wasn’t efficiently enough. When he became more efficient, he didn’t make plays for others. When his playmaking soared, he didn’t win, and he didn’t play defense.

Now in his sixth NBA season, the 24-year-old Booker is no longer quietly biding his time in the desert, steadily improving each element of his game that proved he “wasn’t a winner” in an unending playoff drought. And when his long-awaited first playoff test arrived, he owned the moment like he’d been preparing for it his whole life.

Devin Booker owned his moment in Game 6

In a 113-100 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 Thursday night, Booker and the Suns exorcised a host of personal, franchise and city-wide demons against their Pacific Division rivals, advancing to the second round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs by knocking off the defending champs. And Booker was the driving force behind it all.

“I was just locked in, from when I woke up,” he said. “I had a tough time taking my pregame nap all out of excitement. We treated this game like a Game 7. We knew we had to come in and we were stressing since the last game that we wanted to end it here on their home-court.”

The Suns did just that, propelled by Booker’s 22 first-quarter points and red-hot shooting from 3-point range right out of the gate. Book’s career high for made 3-pointers in a single game had been six for a long time … and in his first closeout playoff game, he matched that mark in the first quarter.

The Suns star didn’t stop there, however. Even with Los Angeles in a 22-point hole by the end of the first quarter, Phoenix would still need more from its franchise star.

“Players like Book have a determination about them, and I’ve said this about him a number of times, he doesn’t run from the moment,” head coach Monty Williams said. “And in this particular case, the moment was the whole game.”

By halftime, he was up to 33 points as Phoenix took a commanding 21-point lead into the break. Even as the Lakers made their last-ditch run to keep things interesting in the second half, Booker responded with timely buckets right when it felt like the shifting momentum was about to boil over.

He finished with a season-high 47 points on 15-of-22 shooting (including 8-of-10 from deep) while also chipping in 11 rebounds.

“Book, the guy who’s been here the longest, he had a lot of hard seasons, a lot of tough ails, and to see what he did tonight in a closeout game, it’s special,” Chris Paul said. “I’m happy for everybody, but I’m more so happy for him that he’s getting to experience this.”

Paul is right to acknowledge Booker’s uphill climb. Through his first five seasons in the league, the Suns cycled through five different head coaches, two general managers and more than 70 teammates, most of whom didn’t last very long in the association. Booker had never won more than 24 games in his career until last year, when Phoenix’s 8-0 bubble run bumped them up to 34 wins … and they still missed the final play-in spot in the Western Conference.

Booker had vowed before that season that he was done missing the playoffs, but even as his Suns failed to uphold that promise, the bubble provided them with just enough momentum to make their summer trade for Chris Paul a reality. What’s more, one of the most respected point guards in the history of the game wanted to play with him.

“I think one of the biggest things that made me wanna come play here is that I’ve always had the utmost respect for two-way players — guys that not only score and play offense, but also play defense too,” Paul explained. “Devin is one of those guys. He competes on both ends of the court, he accepts the challenge, and when you have guys like that, everybody on the team respects them. So it starts with him. When I got here and I saw the type of respect that Mikal [Bridges], [Deandre Ayton], all the coaches have for Book, it’s contagious.”

Not bad for a guy who “doesn’t play defense” and “isn’t a winner” as of just a few months ago, huh?

Even the defensive stats bear Paul’s assessment out. Entering Game 6, here’s what the Lakers were shooting with Devin Booker as their primary defensive assignment:

Those numbers didn’t improve much on a night where LA shot 41.8 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from 3-point range, especially since Booker played a staggering 46 minutes in the closeout effort.

“He’s one of those guys that wants to move himself in the elite class,” Williams said. “He believes he’s one of the best players in the league. He believes there isn’t a better person at his position, and I’m certain that he believes he’s one of the top players. And this is where you get to show it, in the playoffs. This is the moment that he wanted, I’m sure he’s looking forward to the next one. I’m watching him on the fly just go from a guy who scored a ton of points, now he’s turning into a guy who can lead a team in the playoffs and be in a different class.”

Much like the first few years of his career, it didn’t come easy for Book in this series either. Even with LeBron James and Anthony Davis missing half the season, the Lakers were the NBA’s No. 1 defense for a reason, and after his 34-point, 8-assist, 7-rebound debut in Game 1, LA clamped down on the two-time All-Star. In Games 2-4, Booker shot just 18-for-50 from the field (36 percent) and 2-for-12 from behind the arc (16.7 percent).

But after a few film sessions and conversations with both Williams and CP3, Booker decided to be more decisive in attacking off of first actions, rather than moving or holding the ball, which had allowed the Lakers to make his next look more difficult.

“Obviously he’s played a different style of play than he’s been playing this year, because he’s surrounded by another level of talent with what we have on our team,” Jae Crowder said. “So with him getting blitzed and reading defenses and trying to watch film to get better, I didn’t know he was that type of player to study the game as much as he does. I tip my hat off to him as his teammate, as his brother, just giving his all to the team and to each individual on our roster, trying to get himself better and trying to make other people around him better. I just feel like his growth as a leader, it took a step this year. It’s still growing this year, and we depend on that.”

The results spoke for themselves in Games 5 and 6. Booker dropped 30 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists on 13-of-23 shooting through three quarters in Game 5’s blowout win, and he somehow upped the ante with a 47-point detonation in Game 6, which Crowder said is right at the top of his list alongside Isaiah Thomas in terms of dominant playoff performances he’s witnessed firsthand.

So for those keeping stock, that’s a season-high 47 points and a career-high eight 3s, on the road, against the NBA’s best defense, in a closeout game over the defending champs, to help the Suns win their first playoff series in 11 years while sending LeBron James home in the first round for the first time in his 18-year career … in his first-ever postseason.

Not bad for a looter in a riot! Then again, Booker personally doesn’t care what people have said about him over the years.

“I’m not in the business to validate what another person thinks of me or what everybody else thinks of me,” he said. “This game doesn’t define me. I have a family, I have very close friends that I speak with every day. To me, my relationship with them is more important than what anybody could say about me. So I have a tunnel vision at goals that I want to reach. If I sit back and worry about validation from Billy Bob or whoever it is, that’s taking away from our goal, that’s taking away focus from the real goal that’s at hand for me and my family.”

After Game 6, Booker looked up to the rafters at Staples Center, where the No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys of his idol Kobe Bryant hung. The Black Mamba had once told him to “be legendary,” and Booker said he felt him in the building and thought he would’ve been proud.

That’s quite a turnaround for a star whose team was down 2-1 just last week, but it shouldn’t be surprising; Booker has been quietly putting in work to subvert people’s expectations for years now. It’s why he gave a poised response when he was asked a moronic question about double-teams from summer pickup games two years ago after the biggest game of his life in Game 5. It’s why he’s been toiling away in Phoenix on losing teams without complaining. And it’s why he was ready when his moment finally arrived.

The key, aside from the obvious talent and dedicated work ethic?

“I’d just say imagination,” Booker said. “Obviously you can’t work in the summertime and recreate what you’re gonna feel in the playoffs. So I think mentally, you just have to put yourself in those situations. Put yourself in the last-shot situation, put yourself in a situation where people are going to be physical for you, and you know you’re not gonna get your first shot. So just keeping an imagination like you’re a kid, have fun with it and always be locked in so when that moment comes, you’re ready for it.”

As Book’s mentor Kobe once said, however: “The job’s not done.” As much as it felt like a conference finals matchup, this was only the first round. The likely league MVP and his Denver Nuggets await, which is why Williams and every single Sun that took the virtual podium Thursday night reiterated that this team wants more than just a feel-good playoff appearance or one series win. They’re here to compete for a championship.

If they get there, or anywhere close, it’ll be because Devin Booker can finally stop imagining his next big moment and capture it instead.

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