Devin Booker scored 70 points on Friday, and the numbers don’t even seem real. The second-year Suns guard attempted 40 shots — six fewer than the rest of his team combined. He had 26 free throw tries. And he scored all of those points despite making only four 3-pointers. Phoenix lost to Boston, 130–120, but there was little reason to care about the outcome as it was happening, and there will be even less reason to care about it in the future. What’s important is that Booker’s performance belongs to history.
Seventy is the most points scored in an NBA game since Kobe Bryant’s 81 in 2006. The only guy who has come close to reaching that mark in the past decade is Carmelo Anthony, who had 62 in a game against the Bobcats in 2014. There have been 11 games in NBA history in which a player has had 70 or more points, and Wilt Chamberlain owns six. The other five came from Kobe, David Thompson, Elgin Baylor, David Robinson, and Booker. Michael Jordan never cracked 70; neither has LeBron James.
When Klay Thompson dropped 60 against the Pacers in December, he did it while playing off Steph Curry and Kevin Durant (who are part of one of the most dynamic offenses of all time) while being guarded by Indiana’s Monta Ellis (whose defensive weaknesses were seemingly designed in a laboratory for Klay to exploit). Booker was part of a Suns starting unit made up entirely of players 23 years old and younger, with an average age of 21 — that’s the kind of age you expect to see in the NCAA tournament, not in the NBA. Plus, he had Marcus Smart — one of the best defenders in the league — draped all over him for most of the night.
The Suns opened the game in a 22–3 hole, and it would have been hard to blame the crowd at the TD Garden in Boston if it had started checking for updates from the Sweet 16 matchup between De’Aaron Fox and Lonzo Ball, two of the top prospects the Celtics could draft with the 2017 lottery pick they received via a trade with the Nets. The only thing keeping the game remotely competitive was Booker, who started on fire and never cooled off. Booker entered the NBA with a reputation as a shooting specialist, but he’s so much more than that. He’s a 20-year-old who plays with the poise and savvy of a 10-year veteran, and he knows how to use his body to accentuate contact and get to the free throw line. Not only did he score in every way imaginable on Friday — out of the pick-and-roll, in isolations, in the post, and off screens — but he also repeatedly baited the overaggressive Celtics defenders into sending him to the stripe.
As the game wore on, the Celtics’ lead shrank (but was never in serious jeopardy), and the Suns’ focus shifted from competing to giving Booker as many shots as humanly possible. To be fair to Phoenix coach Earl Watson, his team’s goal wasn’t to compete. The Suns are actively trying to lose games in order to boost their chances of securing a high draft pick in what is widely considered a strong draft lottery class. Phoenix has shut down any veteran player of consequence, and has lost nine of its past 10 games. Watson is the one whose career win-loss record is being shredded; if he wants to liven things up by having his players chase statistical milestones, who can blame him? At the very least, Booker gunning for shots is more entertaining than Mark Madsen jacking up seven 3s in a game, which remains the gold standard for tank jobs in recent league history.
The Suns had Booker play as a point guard for most of the second half, and there were several sequences when, after the ball was inbounded to him, he dribbled up court and immediately launched a 3. Booker had 35 points with 3:27 remaining in the third quarter. He scored the next 35 in a little over 15 minutes. Watson was calling timeouts and having his team foul while down double digits in the final seconds in order to manufacture extra possessions for Booker to shoot. Somewhere out there, Kobe is crying tears of joy.
If Booker had made the particularly egregious hoist above, he’d now be tied for the fourth-highest scoring game in NBA history. The Celtics were clearly irritated by Phoenix’s tactics, and wound up playing right into Booker’s hands by fouling him while trying to contest some of his final attempts.
For all of the statistical chicanery, though, Booker still had to make 21 shots and 24 free throw attempts in 44 minutes of playing time. It’s hard to watch him excel in the NBA and not marvel at the fact that Kentucky head coach John Calipari couldn’t find major minutes for him during the Wildcats’ Final Four loss to Wisconsin in 2015. Booker’s limited role on a stacked team with six other future NBA players, where he averaged 10 points per game in 21 minutes off the bench, is why he slipped all the way to the Suns at no. 13 in 2015, which is starting to look like one of the biggest draft heists in years. Booker is only four months older than Kansas freshman Josh Jackson; he’d be a junior at Kentucky if he had elected to stay in school.
Booker isn’t likely to have another historic scoring outburst in the final few weeks of the 2016–17 season, since every team that plays Phoenix will game plan to prevent it, and there’s not much talent around him. He’s starting alongside three rookies, one of whom (his former college point guard Tyler Ulis) is a second-round pick and another of whom (Derrick Jones Jr.) is an undrafted free agent. This is the point in an NBA 2K17 season where you might be tempted to simulate and get to the offseason, or have your best player jack up 50 shots in a game just to see what happens.
Yet watching this game raises a different question, about how many scoring records could fall in the next few years. With teams playing smaller and faster, and spreading the floor wider than ever before, loading up to stop one player has become increasingly difficult. There has been an explosion in 50-point outbursts this season: Booker’s 70-point effort brings the total to 12 (from nine different guys) with three weeks until the playoffs, shattering the previous record of eight. And keep in mind, only 11 of Booker’s 40 field goal attempts Friday were 3s. Bump that to 20 and he could’ve been pushing 80.
Booker might never reach these heights again, but if he doesn’t someone else will. Even 100 points doesn’t seem completely out of reach anymore.