I started thinking a lot about the broader contextual consequences of the Suns’ decision to shut down Eric Bledsoe almost as soon as it happened. At this point, it’s really ineffectual in regard to the Suns’ end result this season. Bledsoe has already demonstrated that he can’t really affect wins and losses on this roster all by himself, and his health is more important than 2017 lottery ping pong balls.
What I kept going back to was how this would shove Devin Booker even further into the limelight for fans. People definitely already know his name and are starting to fall in love, but how would removing Bledsoe from the equation change things? Being the sole leader of a bad team can bring out the best and worst in people, depending on the situation and the individual. I have faith in Earl Watson’s leadership and the help of the veterans on the bench, but Booker hasn’t always been the best leader during his two years in the league.
These last 15 games are going to tell us a lot about this team in general without Bledsoe running the show, but Booker’s response will be maybe the most interesting and important long-term.
What I didn’t realize was that this change had already started, since the All-Star break. These young players are part of the future that Booker was drafted to be a part of. Bledsoe was acquired to team up with the last generation of Suns’ stars. Most of the Suns’ young players have come to the team knowing Booker and Bledsoe as co-alphas, and Booker has shone brighter quite often. Bledsoe’s future is still questionable, while Booker is untouchable— on and on. This will one day be Booker’s team, if it isn’t already.
I went back to this weekend’s Mavericks game— one I see as emblematic of this leadership question — to imagine what a Booker-led future might look like.
Going into a hot Mavericks’ team building during the stretch run isn’t something we should envy the Suns for having to do. This is a Dallas team many counted out when they started ticking away playoff possibilities a month ago, but the Mavericks have done what they always do and stuck around. An easy way to stay in the playoff picture is to squash worse teams at home, and it looks like Dirk Nowitzki is going to steal this one away early on. He scores 11 of the Mavericks’ first 13 points before hitting the bench for his customary mid-first quarter break.
In an allusion straight out of the pages of a horror movie, the first big basket made after his departure is a wide-open momentum three by Devin Booker in the corner.
The Suns are able to keep that momentum for the most part through the remainder of the first quarter, but it becomes clear that they will need an individual to take over the offense if they are to keep pace with Nowitzki and the Mavericks. In the second quarter, that is T.J. Warren, who posts up on the Mavericks’ small guards after they try to switch onto the pseudo-power forward. Booker then takes the baton late in the quarter, using the threat of his own offense to set things up for Warren, Marquese Chriss, and others. Warren has 10 points by the end of the first half, but Booker has had a quiet night.
The second half opens with some chaotic play and a bunch of fouls. No one is really able to pull ahead, and Dallas keeps its small lead. The Suns’ defense starts to look particularly rough; when Seth Curry looks like an All-Star, it’s a bad sign. I’m yelling at my laptop and begging Pixelated Earl Watson to call a timeout and make it stop.
When the defense gets sloppy (like it surely has over long stretches since the All-Star break), it can actually cause Booker to look better. It’s a weird thing. It’s also an argument in favor of giving promising youngsters heaps of playing time with the driving thesis of such a decision being simply that experience pays off. When Derrick Jones Jr. and Marquese Chriss are wandering around complex Dallas sets and getting blown past by Yogi Ferrell, Booker simply knowing where to be and how to defend in various situations is important. He’s not great yet, but after seeing thousands of repetitions over two seasons, he’s playing more intelligently than most 20-year-olds.
But what the Suns really need him from him against the Mavericks is consistent, explosive scoring. Bledsoe isn’t going, and the youngsters need the table set for them. The game is devolving, and the Nowitzki-Rick Carlisle expertise is about to take over. Booker needs to get cooking. Eddie Johnson says around the midway point of the third quarter, after a Devin Booker three: “...yeah, they need him to get hot.”
Booker pulls the Suns dead even by the end of the third, and takes a seat. Tyler Ulis bridges the gap with his typical trickery, while Marquese Chriss continues to volleyball spike blocked shots across the court. Is this what the Suns of tomorrow might look like?
If so, Booker is their leader, and he knows his job. He enters in the fourth facing a 84-81 deficit created largely by something called a J.J. Barea. He goes to work.
Eddie Johnson seems to be locked in mystically to the outcome of this game. He mentions cryptically during the eighth minute of the fourth quarter that “the Suns don’t want him (Dirk) to be the deciding factor of this game.” Thirty seconds later, Booker responds with his second and-one bucket of the fourth.
Nowitzki checks in at the 2:35 mark, ready to spar with his fourth generation of NBA youngster. Booker is still complaining about a reach-in call as he walks down the court, but he makes daggers on consecutive possessions to tie the game at 96. He’s getting his scowl on. The Mavericks try to stay collected, but Booker is ready to finish them off.
He gets the ball back the next time down the court, and flips a turnaround from the low post. It’s something that must be all too familiar for Nowitzki, having seen the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant consistently beat his team exactly the same way throughout his career. (For more on Booker’s midrange/post game, check out Scott Rafferty’s excellent write-up linked in that last sentence.) The game is tied again.
The Suns ramp up the defense when it counts-- Chriss bodies up on Nowitzki, who has not impacted the end of the game as he usually does. Dirk has to pass it off to Wesley Matthews, who is Booker’s man. With only one play left to make on defense, Booker finds the energy, contesting a wild three by Matthews that never has a chance. He asks for the ball on the way back down the court for what will be the game’s final possession.
The performance is complete, and it’s a classic. Booker leads the team to victory on a night where hardly anything is going right for the Suns. When his young team needs it, Booker responds with a gorgeous scoring night. No post-game clap-backs at journeymen, no technical fouls, no frustrating moments on offense. This is what Booker’s best looks like.