With CP3 out, Booker steps up to run the show

Published June 22, 2021, 2:00 PMRenee Ticzon

Devin Booker embraced the challenge of leading the Suns in Game 1 with their primary leader Chris Paul unavailable, which resulted in a 40-point triple-double statement game.

“Be Legendary,” the late Kobe Bryant told Devin Booker, and Booker has taken that to heart.

Booker has evolved into more than just a first-option shooter or secondary distributor. He is now a top-tier NBA player that’s capable of leading his team (possibly) to a championship.

Fans weren’t so sure how the Suns would fare without Chris Paul leading the team. Not having your primary playmaker on the floor – especially someone as talented as Paul – could be brutal.

“We’ve been relying on Chris all year, especially down the stretch, controlling the ball and making sure everybody gets involved,” Booker said in the postgame interview.

And it’s true. When Paul was facilitating the plays, Booker’s only concern was shooting the ball. However, without his point guard by his side, Booker needed to adjust quickly.

With stakes as high as the Western Conference Finals, there’s no time to “let one game go” or “focus on the series, not the game.” Phoenix couldn’t let a team like the LA Clippers get ahead because of their ability to ride momentum. The Suns knew that their opponents were booming with confidence after winning four games straight against the no. 1 team in the league even without Kawhi Leonard. 

That’s why Game 1 was so important, and that’s also why Booker’s explosion couldn’t have been better timed. Booker was faced with two primary tasks: score and get everybody involved.

The Suns needed him to shoot buckets. Well, the 40 points under his name was impressive enough, but let’s deep dive into why it was so good.

He was impressive from beyond the arc, making 42.9 percent of his shots, so he could have settled with just chucking up 3s. But he knew he would be guarded from so far out. The Clippers were isolating and doubling Booker from long distance, so he adjusted his game.

First, he decided to get his midrange going. Paul was so successful from within the arc against the Denver Nuggets in the semifinals because he broke down their defense. Booker took notes, and decided to do it while Paul was absent.

It worked. In fact, it got him going so well that he scored 16 points straight for a stretch in the third quarter. He recognized that the Clippers couldn’t defend his midrange so he did it over and over again.

Of his 40 points, only seven were from the free throw line and nine were from beyond the arc. That makes the rest of his 24 points either from the post or midrange. And yes, that’s from a guy who’s just 6’5” and 200 pounds.

If he wasn’t shooting, what was he doing? There came his second task: getting everyone involved.

Booker was getting doubled by the time he reached half court, opening up a teammate or two. And that’s the thing about Booker, he’s so good at scoring that his opponents tend to forget he’s an excellent passer as well.

“Just make the right play, that’s what I try to do every time I’m on court. Obviously, finding the balance between my aggressiveness and being able to get others involved,” said Booker.

The Suns had a total of 16 team assists in 25 made field goals even before halftime. By the end of the game, Booker had 11 of the team’s 31 assists. He managed to find the right guys with the best opportunities, and brought six out of the eight players to double-digit scoring. He was even close to replicating Paul’s amazing playmaking by tallying only two turnovers in the 44 minutes he played.

Additionally, his presence late in the game didn’t trickle down like most guys in pressure-packed situations. It was a 2-point game with 22 seconds remaining. Booker was the point guard alongside Deandre Ayton, Cam Johnson, Mikal Bridges, and Jae Crowder. 

Just as they were setting up, Booker slithered his way through the defense and hit a wide open dunk. Then he helped the Suns get a defensive stop and a rebound that sealed the match.

His versatility and consistency showed how mature Booker has become after only six seasons in the NBA. He kept holding the Clippers down and avoiding a big deficit by doing everything he could on both ends of the floor. 

“Just doing anything in my power to get a win,” said Booker. “We have a really good collective group and we rely on each other. We rely on our defense, and my offense just comes.”

With a guy like Booker, it’s easy to get lost in the numbers. He finished with his first career triple-double with 40 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists in a conference finals in his FIRST playoff appearance.

As he said, Booker has found the perfect balance between being aggressive and distributing the ball. His good game impacted every player in Phoenix instead of making it a one-man show, which he could have easily done.