Brian WindhorstESPN Senior Writer7 minute read
Devin Booker is nostalgic. He loves vintage cars, vintage fashion and, when you consider his festering rivalry with contemporary star Luka Doncic, even some bad vintage NBA blood.
Nike, cashing in on its growing popularity, has started selling a Booker-themed version of its Zoom GT Cut 2. It thinks they’re pretty cool and wears them during warm-ups. But for Phoenix Suns games, he’ll be wearing his long-time favorite vintage Kobes (thanks a lot).
Booker likes to delve into the past. He frequently talks about his own recent history, but not always fondly. He smiles as he thinks back to the Suns’ 2015 draft; he had never spent any appreciable time in the desert and knew nothing of the city. But many of those memories don’t come with smiles.
He spent most of the first four years of his professional career in a quagmire, going through coaches and averaging a meager 22 wins per season. The Suns were worse than a laughing stock; they were irrelevant.
The most glorious moment of this period came when Booker had a magical night in Boston in March 2017, scoring 70 points in a brilliant game. He and his teammates, thirsty for anything to cling to, happily celebrated around him and it left Booker awkwardly forced to defend his historic night – the Suns still lost that game by 10 points.
Booker can’t erase those scars and won’t.
But that seems like an eternity ago now. Booker added another record to his elite playoff resume on Friday night, saving the Suns season for now with one of those near-flawless offensive plays that have become his trademark.
Booker, clearly sensing the moment with the Suns down 0-2 to the top-seeded Denver Nuggets and groin-injured guard Chris Paul, had 47 points on 20-of-25 shooting Friday night in the vital game. 121-114 3 wins at Phoenix.
The usually even-keeled Booker let out a throaty roar as he made his final hoop of the night, a layup into traffic that defeated the Nuggets’ attempts to throw bodies at him one last time.
That basket gave him 45 points, the third time in the last six games he has at least reached that number.
The Suns still have quite a few problems in this series. They remain desperate for the offensive outing of Booker and Kevin Durant, who ground to 39 points on 31 attempts.
It was Booker’s third breakthrough performance in the past two weeks. He had 45 points in a game-changing road win in Game 3 over the Los Angeles Clippers, giving the Suns leverage. He shot 18 of 29 in that game.
Then he snatched 25 points in a whirlwind third quarter in the closing fifth game of this series, part of a 47-point masterpiece that tied the playoff career high he tied again on Friday. He did 19 of 27 that night.
That display capped the most prolific playoff run of his career: 37.2 points on 60 percent shooting and 2.6 steals per game.
He slipped a bit in all three games against the Nuggets, averaging 36.6 points … on 60% shooting.
But in those moments when he could justly be celebrating the present, he repeatedly floats back.
“I don’t take any chances of doing anything special for granted,” Booker said after eliminating the Clippers.
“Just going from a young team to an established team is now something totally different. But I wouldn’t change my background for anyone else. … It’s hard to take them Ls at the start. But I think I have to develop my game, and I had people who believed in me, the organization that believed in me and I took it from there.”
Even with the challenges that come with this streak that threatens to end Booker’s run early, people around him in Phoenix think he’s never played a fuller game. Especially after returning in early February after a necessary break to address lingering hamstring and groin injury issues, averaging 29.7 points on 53% shooting.
Then he set up the most statistically impressive playoff series in team history against the Clippers. He’s working to top him to carry the Suns with Durant in this series.
He was also the team’s most active playmaker in defense. Against the Clippers, he often assumed the high defensive responsibility, whether it was Kawhi Leonard, Norman Powell or Russell Westbrook. He did so by playing 43 minutes per game, showing that he is indeed the Suns’ current alpha, even though he plays with future Hall of Famers Durant and Paul.
“To see the type of two-way superstar he’s becoming is insane,” said Suns center Deandre Ayton, now playing his fifth season alongside Booker. “I can’t even sit here and explain to you.”
His teammates have noticed that sometimes when he is on point, Booker will call a play before receiving instructions from coach Monty Williams. And when Williams makes the call a second later or even simultaneously, they’re the same (especially on out-of-bounds play).
“Sometimes I think he’s reading what I’m reading, or maybe we’re saying the same thing by chance, which is scary,” Williams said. “He says what I say.”
True to character, Booker abandons the concept that he’s recently taken a leap forward. Regardless of statistics or trivia, so was the vintage book.
“I always had a reputation at the start of my career that I couldn’t [defend]”, Booker said, of a belief among NBA scouts years ago. “Being on a losing team was tough and I had a lot of weight on my shoulders. … I always thought I was a good defender.”
And there is this story. In 2019, at the start of Williams’ first season as Booker’s fifth coach in as many seasons, he woke up to a text from Booker in the middle of the night. The night before, Booker hadn’t been assigned to defend a superstar from the opposing team.
Williams chose not to identify the player, but he recalls that Booker was unhappy that his new coach did not put the responsibility on him.
“He was like, ‘Coach, I wanted them,'” Williams recalled. “And that spoke to me a lot.”
Because Williams didn’t see him as that type of player either – at least at the time.
It’s not like he’s new to this level of play; Booker made the All-NBA First Team last year. Two years ago, his dominant playoff performance helped the Suns advance to the Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks.
But Williams and Booker’s teammates are witnessing his evolution, however the star himself wants to characterize his career.
“You see someone like Book and you see his journey, you see his work ethic and his love for the game and you also try to get things out of them,” Durant said.
“Having the opportunity to play with some of the greatest players of all time is something that will only improve my game and my story, to be honest,” Booker said.
“I don’t want to take it for granted.”