PHOENIX - Devin Booker heated up into pressure-cooker mode precisely when Phoenix needed it most in front of a sellout home crowd of 16,583 for Game 2 of the NBA Finals.
You saw the box score, the team-high 31 points in the Suns' 118-108 win. But it's the timeliness and impact of Booker's production that lifts him to the top spot in this latest installment of our NBA Finals MVP Ladder.
"I just think Devin wants to prove to everybody he's one of the best players in the league, but not just from a stats, numbers perspective," said Phoenix coach Monty Williams. "I think he wants to prove it by winning and he's competitive … I think that's what he wants to separate himself from everyone else is to not only put up stats, but to show he can lead a team to win, and he's getting the chance to do it on the big stage."
Phoenix entered Game 2 of the NBA Finals with a postseason record of 12-0 when it leads by double-digits, but Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks seemed hellbent on destroying that stat so they could fly home with the series deadlocked at 1-1. The Suns led 88-78 at the start of the fourth quarter, before the Bucks started chipping away with a flurry of buckets from Jrue Holiday, Pat Connaughton and Antetokounmpo as part of a 6-2 run that cut the home team's advantage to six not even two minutes into the final frame.
Booker calmly responded with a 3-pointer over Bucks' big Brook Lopez just 22 seconds later to push Phoenix's lead back up to nine points.
💦💦 pic.twitter.com/m8kusQ7An9- Phoenix Suns (@Suns) July 9, 2021
Inside Phoenix Suns Arena, the crowd knew the resilient Bucks weren't going anywhere.
They'd cut Phoenix's lead to five points on an alley-oop from Holiday to Lopez, before Ayton pushed it back to seven off an assist from Paul. Booker then delivered arguably the most crushing blow to Milwaukee's comeback bid by hitting back-to-back 3-pointers over a span of 31 seconds to send the orange-and-purple clad crowd into party mode and later chants of "Suns in 4!"
Let's not forget Booker started slowly in Game 2, shooting 2-for-8 from the field in the opening frame before finishing the first half with 10 points (4-for-12).
"[I] just slowed it down a bit," Booker explained. "Early in the game, [I was] just amped, excited and shooting a few things long, rushing a few shots. So [I was] just getting back to fundamentals."
Booker scored 9 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter.
"He puts the work in. That's what a lot of people don't see... It's nice to be on his team."- Phoenix Suns (@Suns) July 9, 2021
- @CP3 on @DevinBook
Hear from the team tonight! 👇
"He's one of the leading scorers in this game," Holiday said. "He's put in the work and practiced for it, just like we've done the same. He's damn near perfected it and has been on a roll, been on a tear. Difficult [to guard], yes, but still not impossible for us to do a little bit more."
It's certainly time considering Milwaukee now stares up from a 2-0 hole. That starts with finding a way to slow down Phoenix's dynamic duo at the guard spots.
Just four teams in NBA Finals history have rebounded from an 2-0 series deficit. The 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers and the 2006 Miami Heat most recently accomplished that feat to win championships. The 1977 Portland Trail Blazers and the 1969 Boston Celtics are the other two teams to bounce back after losing the first pair of games in The Finals.
As for Booker, the sixth-year pro has now racked up eight 30-point outings in the postseason after shaking off a slow start to reel off 21 points over the final two quarters of Game 2.
"Book had 70 in a game before, you know what I mean?" Paul said. "You don't do that being shy. He puts the work in. That's what a lot of people don't see. You see the games - you don't see all the shots after practice and all this different type of stuff. He's built for it. He could tell you better than I can, but he has trained and worked his whole life for these moments and our team all season long has been [like], 'You put the work in, you live with the results.' So, if Book shoots it, I expect it to go in. I get mad when he don't shoot. So, big shots."
And now, the Top 3 in our 2021 Race to the NBA Finals MVP Ladder:
1. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Finals stats: 29.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 6.0 apg
Bottomless stamina plays a role in Booker's ability to keep firing accurately in key moments late in games. The Suns knocked down a postseason franchise-record 20 3-pointers, which tied the 2019 Golden State Warriors for the second-most in an NBA Finals game. "We have a let-it-fly mentality," Williams explained. "The thing about Devin [is] he shoots the same way [in the] first quarter, fourth quarter; doesn't matter, his shot looks the same. That's a guy that's put a ton of work in his shot. But the mentality, he's calm in those moments. So, we're grateful for those contributions in those moments."
2. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
Finals stats: 27.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 8.5 apg
Likely still the sentimental favorite to win NBA Finals MVP, Paul turned over the ball six times in Game 2, which is the most turnovers he's committed in a game this postseason. Still, Paul (1,041) moved past Kobe Bryant (1,040) for 10th in all-time playoff assists with his eight dimes against the Bucks. Over his last three outings this postseason, Paul is averaging 32 points and 8.3 assists, while hitting 60.3% from the floor. "I know how quick things can change," Paul said. "I know how a possession or a play can change the dynamics of an entire series. So, for me I don't get too high, I don't get too low. I just stay even keel."
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Finals stats: 31.0 ppg, 14.5 rpg, 4.0 apg
Even with all of Booker's heroics, Antetokounmpo put forth a gutsy performance in Game 2 with 42 points (which included 20 points in the third quarter - the best single-quarter Finals output since Michael Jordan in 1993), 12 rebounds, four assists and three blocks. The showing marked Antetokounmpo's second 40-point, 10-rebound performance of the playoffs, and he's the first Milwaukee Buck in franchise history to tally 40-plus points and 10-plus rebounds in an NBA Finals game. He'll need more from his teammates, but the two-time MVP is saying all the right things. "In this situation, I understand there's so much pressure from the whole world, from the media, from the fans. But at the end of the day, it's not about just us individually. It's about the whole team, everybody that worked to be in this position. It's kind of hard to enjoy the game when you're losing, but we're going to figure it out."
And two more:
Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Finals stats: 16.0 ppg, 15.0 rpg, 2.0 spg
Call him double-double Deandre. Ayton scored just 10 points in Game 2, but the center racked up his 13th double-double of the playoffs and fifth in a row to go with a game-high three steals. Only Charles Barkley (22) has put up more double-doubles than Ayton in Suns' postseason history.
Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns
Finals stats: 20.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.0 apg
Filled it up with 13 points and seven rebounds in the first half to finish with a postseason career-high 27 points on 8-of-15 from the field and a perfect 8-of-8 at the free-throw line. "He's going to do whatever you need him to do, offensively or defensively, and it's good to see him playing like this," Paul said.
Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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