Playoffs 2021

NBA Playoffs 2021: Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker picks perfect time for statement game

Devin Booker didn't get a single MVP vote. He didn't make first or second or third team All-NBA. He was at the All-Star Game this year, but only as a replacement for the injured Anthony Davis.

None of that ego-gratifying, regular-season candy means anything today. This is a man's game now. You make your fame from fall to spring, but you make your name in summer. That's when every possession counts, when shots are big and the lights are hot, when you're asked to meet whatever the moment demands.

In that sense, right here and now, Booker is taking a serious star turn, none more than the opener of the Western Conference Finals, when he shook the Clippers and put the Suns in early control of the series in a 120-114 Game 1 win.

Booker was massive Sunday (ET) because Chris Paul was missing. And here's what's interesting about all the positive chatter surrounding the Suns: Paul is mainly considered the difference-maker, the team's most important player, the straw in the drink. And that's fine and accurate to a degree - Phoenix hadn't done diddly in the decade before he arrived this season with a bag of credibility. But what everyone witnessed in Game 1 was the essence of Booker and the sheer force of his offensive game, which is all wet - slang-speaking, of course.

It was 40 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists, his first career triple-double, and the timing was ideal. It was a dismantling that won't soon be forgotten in the Valley, long starved for summer basketball entertainment.

Booker was too much to handle all day. Bouncy and stuck in attack mode, he slipped through double teams, making the Clippers pay for their respect more often than not. He made the right decisions with the ball - when to pass, when to shoot. He generated buckets for teammates who were left open because of those doubles.

And he constantly stuck a finger in the eye of the analytics diehards by dropping mid-range shots, one after another, drip, drip, drip, and it was the picture of pull-up beauty.

Booker has always garnered respect from the basketball world, but those kisses always came with a bit of a hedge. Booker, you see, never played in the playoffs until now. He scored heavily for losing teams, and players in those situations are always dismissed by basketball eggheads for Getting Points On Bad Teams. Because his light shined mostly in darkness - again, the Suns were never good enough to last this long and perform on the big-boy stage before the world - Booker was a best-kept secret.

Well, everyone's catching on now.

40-point triple-doubles in conference finals history
Date Player (Team) Opponent Result
June 20, 2021 Devin Booker (Suns) Clippers 120-114 W (Game 1)
May 15, 2018 LeBron James (Cavs) Celtics 107-94 L (Game 2)
June 1, 1993 Charles Barkley (Suns) Sonics 120-114 W (Game 5)
March 28, 1963 Oscar Robertson (Royals) Celtics 135-132 W (Game 1)

"That's one!" Booker boasted as the buzzer sounded.

The Clippers actually had a sound game plan to send delayed double-teams his way. This is designed for Booker to surrender the ball with less than 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock and put it in the hands of teammates who either had to rush shots or who weren't used to being in that position. In normal situations, Paul would negate this strategy. But he's still in timeout for safety protocols, and here we are.

Booker was especially scorching in the third quarter when a close game flipped the Suns' way. He scored 18 points in the period, including 16 straight. Even better, he got the crowd into the game, and for the rest of the way, nobody bothered to sit. For what? And miss the show?

The challenge now for the Clippers is to adjust to a player who isn't strictly a 3-point shooter. The damage done by Booker was mainly in the midrange, which is a lost art in the NBA only because the analytics people highly discourage such shots. Interestingly, the Suns have two masters of the "middies" in Paul and Booker and they're doing OK.

Who's quick and agile enough to stay with Booker? Do the Clippers risk putting Paul George on him and seeing their lone All-Star possibly get into foul trouble? Also, the Suns love the idea of molasses-footed Ivica Zubac being caught in switches on Booker, who instantly goes into iso-mode and blows past him or causes the center to collect cheap fouls. Ditto on DeMarcus Cousins, who was dusted off for this game after being stashed in the closet most of the last series. The Clippers must place a big man on the floor to deal with agile Suns center Deandre Ayton … this is their dilemma.

"We've got to figure out how to counter," George said, "and we will."

The Clippers blew a golden chance to steal a game in Phoenix, without Kawhi Leonard and with Paul out. There's no timetable on Paul's return. If he's back in uniform for Game 2, there's the real chance of the Clippers falling behind 2-0 to start a third series.

The Clippers bailed themselves out after climbing out of the first two holes but they'll be pushing it should it happen again. Three strikes and you're out?

The elephant in the room is Leonard and his knee sprain. He didn't make the trip for the Clippers. Coach Ty Lue wouldn't rule him out for the series but said the Clippers will prepare as though Kawhi will not return.

Asking the Clippers to beat a blazing hot Suns team without Leonard is one thing. Asking them to do that without Leonard and with Booker in star mode is another.

Basketball is funny, narratives are tricky, and the only certainty is uncertainty. People have the green light to make their Suns In Four jokes and memes. But after one game, all things considered, this sneak peek into this series - and that's all it is, just a small sample size - Phavors Phoenix.

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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