Nothing encapsulates “Be Legendary” for Devin Booker than going on an extended playoff run with strong performances in his first postseason stint. With Chris Paul out for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, he continued to answer the call.
Booker finished with his 40 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists, registering his first career triple-double in a 120-114 win over the Los Angeles Clippers. Such a feat becomes all the more important given the circumstances in which it was done.
The Clippers threw multiple defenders at him and yet it really didn’t seem to matter to the former Kentucky Wildcat. He continued to score on a flurry of jump shots and layups in what was a fun shootout with Paul George, who continued his stellar play with the absence of Kawhi Leonard.
The rest of the Suns followed Booker’s lead, especially with things opening up for them offensively. Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges, Torrey Craig, and Cam Johnson each knocked down two 3-pointers with Booker drawing much of the defense’s attention. DeAndre Ayton, who continues to prove naysayers wrong in this postseason, finished with a near double-double of 20 points and nine rebounds, giving the Clipper defense a different cover compared to Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.
Phoenix’s personnel are quite different from that of Utah Jazz and that goes both ways. The Suns are so used to double-teams that they have already developed countermeasures to when the extra pressure is deployed. It is also likely that Booker at times plays decoy in order to mask the true first option in certain offensive sets. What also works for them is that the likes of Bridges have developed the other parts of their game.
Compared to the Jazz, the team is more reliant on certain stars (i.e., Booker and Paul) in creating plays and putting them in the right spots. Booker has taken on more playmaking duties with Cameron Payne, but it has also added to the predictability of the offense, especially when only some shots are falling.
However, when the whole team is clicking offensively, it then turns the Suns into a pick-your-poison kind of team. Doubling Booker increases the likelihood of easy baskets for Ayton and the rest of the Suns but leaving him in single coverage could leave his defender at the mercy of the two-time all-star. The 24-year-old has also shown his ability to create plays for his teammates in these playoffs and even in single coverage, he can make the extra pass that can lead to the best shot possible.
With Booker and the rest of the Suns coming up with these kinds of performances on the biggest of stages, Paul has all the confidence in the world sitting out due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
Perhaps Los Angeles felt the effects of a quick turnaround from their previous series against Utah. Yet this postseason has shown that you can’t count them out.
The Clippers are used to playing from behind and head coach Tyronn Lue has proven to be a master in adjusting to situations where he and his team have their backs against the wall. Closing out the top-seeded Jazz without Leonard is not something to pass off considering Leonard’s contributions in the previous 11 playoff games before going down with what was described as a sprained right knee.
Targeting Booker on defense will always be a key component in shutting him down on the other end. With Paul out, he has to expend more energy in playmaking and scoring and making him run through screens will only add to his fatigue. Forcing him into contested looks and costly turnovers could help psych him out defensively.
Ayton is not on Gobert’s level defensively, but unlike the Frenchman, he is not an offensive albatross. Handing him the ball on the low block will not end the possessions (regardless of whether the shot was made or not) as he had two assists in this game. Ivica Zubac and DeMarcus Cousins will get more run in this series and the latter could put Ayton in foul trouble especially when playing in spurts.
Both Zubac and Cousins will now have to guard a wider portion of the paint as Ayton can get the ball in more spots than Gobert and punish defenders offensively. The other added element includes his ability to get offensive rebounds, as energy on the glass can give the Suns extra possessions.
Kobe Bryant must be smiling from up above as he watches Booker go on his own legendary playoff run. It may sometimes get lost in the mix with the performances of Kevin Durant, Donovan Mitchell, and Luka Doncic, but among those three, only Booker and the Phoenix Suns remain. Now all that’s left is to finish the job and win a title.