Sure, without Devin Booker and T.J. Warren, two players who average 40% of the offense, the Phoenix Suns very nearly beat the West-leading Los Angeles Clippers a week ago with a balanced attack of seven different players scoring in double figures.
And with Warren back, but still without Booker, the Suns went on TNT and beat the streaking Dallas Mavericks on Thursday as Warren re-found his rhythm to put up a season-high 30 points.
Over the six games before Booker’s return to the lineup, coinciding with rookie De’Anthony Melton joining the regular rotation, the Suns had started playing defense (20th overall) but couldn’t put the ball in the hoop often enough and still lost five of those six.
Welcome back, Devin Booker.
On Saturday, he reminded us what a healthy Booker can bring to a team. Booker scored 28 points on 16 shots (10-16 from the field), grabbed seven rebounds and dished seven assists against only two turnovers.
For the season, only two other players in the league are averaging more points and assists than Booker’s 23.8 and 6.8. Those guys are LeBron James and James Harden.
Now Booker is healthy and ready to, hopefully, put all those nagging injuries behind him.
“It’s the best I felt all season,” he said after the game. “I kept saying that before I came back, I wanted to be 100 percent healthy. Been playing through injuries all year and got a little contagious so just wanted to make sure I was fully ready to go tonight.”
Booker started the year with hand injury, then suffered a couple of hamstring pulls and never really found his rhythm.
Next to him, De’Anthony Melton looked like the good fit we all hoped he might be. Melton plays defense with abandon (two steals), and on offense has no hesitation on catch-and-shoot threes, made a couple of nice drives to the hoop and dished five assists of his own against three turnovers.
But Melton is not a pure scorer. Neither are Josh Jackson (who is shooter, not be mistaken for a scorer) or Mikal Bridges. Even Deandre Ayton, the Suns third leading scorer, relies on setups and good passes to get his shots.
Now that Booker is back along with the Suns only real high-quality veteran in 25-year old ‘3J’ Warren, the Suns can stagger their minutes and keep an efficient scorer on the court nearly all the time.
“He’s a big part of this team and a big part of our offense,” Ayton said. “The load he takes every game is phenomenal and he’s just going to have to get certain guys open, it’s a different type of flow. Our chests are held high when he’s healthy.”
Sure, you’re thinking about the Suns losing at an incredible clip even with Booker in the lineup last year and this year and wondering how the article can have such a presumptuous title.
How can Booker make the Suns a winner when all he’s done is lose?
Look at what’s around him. No offense to the kiddie corps that’s gone through Phoenix, but a 21 or 22 year old Booker should not have to be the most consistent and “veteran” guy on the floor.
That’s where we are, though. The Suns have, by FAR, had the fewest minutes in the league this year from guys between the ages of 23 and 29. What’s magical about 23-29 years old? Well, those are the best years of an athlete’s life. They’ve grown into their NBA bodies, built up the strength and experience to consistently play through grind of an 82-game season.
There’s a reason Troy Daniels has seemed like a breath of fresh air these last two weeks since that debacle of consecutive 9-point first quarters in blowout losses. Daniels knows how to play basketball and be productive despite his limited talents.
“It’s a big boy sport,” Daniels said a week ago after the Suns got outscored 36-9 in the opening quarter at home. “It’s all in your mind. You got come out and be ready to play.”
After that game, Daniels has gotten more playing time. Coach Igor Kokoskov has been begging for it all season. There’s a reason he gave the veterans like Ariza, Jamal Crawford and Isaiah Canaan so many minutes early on. He wanted consistent big boy effort.
“I mean, we got Trev [Trevor Ariza] out there with three rookies and [second year player] Josh,” Mikal Bridges said the other night, explaining how the Suns can go through so many little scoring and efforting slumps. “A lot of us haven’t been in that position in the NBA. It’s a big jump.”
Now with the Suns jettisoning the under-efforting Ariza for 4th year veteran Kelly Oubre Jr. and 6th year veteran Austin Rivers, who are 23 and 25 respectively, Booker will have a pair of new guys he can lean on that know how to play NBA basketball. They aren’t great players, but they’ve been in the league long enough to know how to survive the night after night grind and keep producing.
But make no mistake, the Suns go as Devin Booker goes.
“He’s one of the best guards in the league,” Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau said before Saturday’s game. “So that’s a big addition to their team. The way he shoots the ball, the way he’s so effective off the dribble in pick and rolls and handoffs and that sort of thing. If he has any airspace, he’s going to hurt you.”
Booker is the key to the Suns now and for a long long time into the future. It’s time to give him players who know how to play competitive and consistent while the kiddie corps grows into their best selves.
Let’s celebrate the team’s first two-game winning streak in nearly a year.
Let’s celebrate the team’s first pair of games holding opponents under 100 points in 11 months.
Let’s celebrate the Suns adding a couple more NBA-ready players to the rotation with Rivers and Oubre Jr.
And let’s see what Devin Booker and coach Igor Kokoskov can do with these new ingredients.
“I love Phoenix,” Booker said this week.
And we love Booker.