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Devin Booker Is in Complete Control

Denver’s defense is running out of options to defend Booker and Kevin Durant, whose dominant performances in Games 3 and 4 against all types of coverage have evened Suns-Nuggets at two games apiece. “We can send a double-team, and they can still go and make tough shots,” says Nikola Jokic. 

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Seven years ago, a promising young scorer named Devin Booker turned up at the Las Vegas summer league to learn how to command a team of his own. His rookie season had been an exercise in chaos—with the Phoenix Suns firing their head coach after dismissing several of his assistants as a warning shot, trading a disgruntled veteran leader who had picked enough fights with teammates and staff to force his way out, and ultimately stumbling into one of the worst records in the league. Booker, at all of 19 years old, was a stabilizing force by comparison, even as he was just starting to figure out the NBA game.

Summer league offered a chance for Booker, who had been a sixth man in college and was tied for sixth on the Suns in usage during his one pro season, to take the reins of the offense. To see what he could handle. He blew the doors off the Thomas & Mack Center, averaging 26 points in a couple of games before Phoenix decided he might be a bit too advanced for a bunch of recent draft picks and fringe prospects.

“You realize that you can take your time with things,” he explained then, in the back tunnels of the arena. “But once you make your move, it’s fast.”

That has become one of the enduring lessons of Booker’s career—and one that changed the way he reads the game. On this side of stardom, Booker plays a style that is patient until it isn’t—exploring the coverage until he’s ready to tear it apart. It doesn’t matter how you guard him. In this year’s playoffs alone, Booker has seen it all—shows and traps and matchups of every kind. And there he was on Sunday night in Game 4 against the Nuggets, taking his time in an absolutely crucial game as he teased out possessions against looming double-teams, making fast moves from slow plays:

The story of how the Suns tied up their second-round series against the Nuggets at two games apiece—effectively saving their season—is the story of how Booker and Kevin Durant have forced Denver’s hand. Nuggets coach Michael Malone has tried every realistic option to guard Booker one-on-one, only to watch the fully formed superstar torch them all. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has matched Booker step for step. Aaron Gordon has had a hand in his face on every switch. And none of it has meant a damn thing, as Booker put up 83 points across Games 3 and 4 while shooting an incomprehensible 79 percent from the field.

That’s the kind of figure that can break a defense. It’s also one that doesn’t mean much to Booker.

“Man, I’m just trying to win,” he said after Game 4. “I always say, and this is something that I tell KD: Throw that efficiency shit out the window. I don’t care about that. Just keep going. Keep attacking.” What’s required can look a bit different in the playoffs; sometimes the only way to win is for a star to force the issue, shooting percentages be damned. Booker, however, has been on enough of a heater in these playoffs to force defenses into all kinds of compromises. He might not care about that efficiency shit, but Malone does—and you can see that in the fact that eventually, the Nuggets had no choice but to double Booker and Durant and live with the consequences.

They lost with them, too. Whenever the Nuggets ran a second defender at Booker, he took his time to not only read the floor, but also shape it to his liking. The most powerful thing a player can do after drawing multiple defenders is to keep them close—holding their attention while stringing out the defense toward the sideline, distorting its shape. Booker didn’t just beat the double (his old nemesis) in Game 4; he turned it into something he could control.

“I thought the balance tonight was in the 12 assists: his ability to see the double-team, stretch it—because the stretching makes for a longer rotation—and then finding guys on the back side with on-time, on-target passes,” said Suns coach Monty Williams. “Then, when there were opportunities for him to go, he went.”

Durant scored 36 points on 19 shots and contributed six assists himself, operating in similar fashion with similarly devastating results. The most tangible difference between the Nuggets’ first two wins in the series and the Suns’ two wins since is how those two stars have demanded attention and dispatched it. No Phoenix role player had logged a double-digit scoring effort in this series until Landry Shamet dropped 19 points on Sunday, almost all of which came from Denver’s scrambling defense leaving him wide open. “Those guys are gonna draw a lot of attention,” Shamet said. “Book’s making unbelievable reads right now—seeing the defense and making the right play all the time. It’s just a matter of us on the back end of that play trying to convert.”

When it wasn’t Shamet, it was Terrence Ross or T.J. Warren. All three role players have been out of the mix entirely at some point in this series but have become invaluable against the increasing desperation of the Nuggets defense. Booker and Durant combined for 18 total assists in Games 1 and 2—seven of which went to each other. In Games 3 and 4, with Chris Paul sidelined by a groin injury, those two stars notched 35 assists. Even when Denver isn’t doubling outright, Durant and Booker have created open looks all over the floor as help defenders are naturally pulled in their direction.

Phoenix’s rotation is shifting to reflect that reality, away from defense-first hustlers like Josh Okogie and in favor of quick-fire options like Shamet. “If they double-team, you have to be able to have shotmakers on the back side—willing shot takers,” Williams said. “And then guys who can put pressure on the rim.” Yet by drawing that kind of attention in the first place, the Suns’ costars have manifested some much-needed depth out of thin air. The only player in the entire postseason to average more minutes per game than Booker is Durant, in part because making a midseason trade for him left Phoenix with an especially limited supporting cast. Paul’s injury only created more of a pinch for the Suns to find viable minutes among the supporting cast.

So Booker and Durant simply dominated to the point that they changed the rules of engagement. Shamet will have his ups and downs, but he can hit corner 3s when left unbothered. You don’t want to hang your offense on Ross and Warren, but they can heat up at virtually any time. Deandre Ayton might make the Footprint Center groan (and did, again and again, in Game 3), but he and Jock Landale finish well enough to be guarded—which often means some other Sun won’t be.

“We played 10 guys tonight,” Durant said with some surprise after checking the Game 4 box score. “They played eight. So that’s always good, when we can bring guys in off the bench, get us a couple minutes of rest, and we don’t miss a beat.” Booker’s 40 minutes on Sunday, while extreme for most players, tied his lowest total this postseason. Buying those few extra minutes of rest may have paid off in Booker’s precision down the stretch. The Nuggets started Game 3 with the premise that tough, diligent, one-on-one defense against Booker and Durant might be enough in this matchup, and they got burned for it. With things going the same way in Game 4, they shifted strategies and wagered that with enough pressure, they could force Booker and Durant to throw difficult cross-court passes—and got burned on those, too. Denver tried a bit of everything and managed to stop nothing.

“We know what the problem is,” Nikola Jokic said. “We know who we need to stop. But they are talented players—they are the two best scorers, probably, in the league right now who can create a shot. We can send a double-team, and they can still go and make tough shots.”

Ironically, one could say the same of Jokic—who had 53 points and 11 assists in the loss. There is a joy in watching two teams with shotmaking so spectacular that they don’t even know what to do with each other. As the more complete team, the Nuggets should have more answers—but do they? Is there any kind of answer for a version of Booker that misses just nine shots in 43 tries? Denver might be able to survive the make-or-miss swings of Durant hoisting tough, contested shots, particularly when Gordon is playing him about as well as a defender can. No defense, however, can withstand what Booker has been dishing out.

The longest-tenured Sun has been streaking out in transition to split Denver’s defense before it even sets and patiently reading the game when trapping defenders try to speed him up. The Nuggets just can’t seem to get on his pace, or his frequency, or his level. It’s a vision realized—a do-it-all guard in complete control. Even when the double comes, Booker is still getting whatever he wants.

“He looks for those moments to not just make those shots,” Williams said, “but to send a message to his team that he can carry us.”