Before last Wednesday’s 107-96 victory over the Knicks at home, Devin Booker had something to say.
Following a great shootaround in the morning, Booker felt a smooth rhythm during his pregame warmup routine, during which he puts up dozens of shots from all around the court.
“I’m about to get 40.”
Or, at least that’s how Deandre Ayton remembers it.
“He couldn’t miss, great shots and we were just running through him,” Ayton said. “I see this every day so it’s nothing new to me, it’s just that he called it out.”
Booker’s lips were much tighter after the game. He said he called a number higher than that but didn’t get it, so he wasn’t in a hurry to talk about it, diverting attention to the win instead.
“I don’t know what he’s talking about.”
“He has a mouth, that’s what my grandma used to say.
“It was a cool atmosphere in the arena and we’ve been winning and the ball has been finding everybody in the right spots, so I knew I was going to get some good looks.”
Coach Igor Kokoskov was driven to laughter last week at practice when asked about how winning changes the mood on a team. Indeed, Ws can inject even the worst teams with swagger, but Booker is right to note just how much more his teammates are helping lately.
This is the biggest reason for optimism that this stretch of play was legit, that it was a sign of things to come and not just a blip on the radar. Booker has been at full force not because he caught fire and took on an insane burden but because the Suns found a mixture around him that is working.
The fourth-year playmaker is playing the best basketball of his life right now, averaging 27.7 points, 6.7 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game on a 61.1 true shooting percentage his past seven games, five of which the Suns won. Combine that individual brilliance with beating two of the best teams in the NBA and nailing down the casket on the Lakers’ season, and Booker is starting to tear down the idea that he wouldn’t be able to contribute to winning.
Booker has also had more consistent support from his teammates than ever before. It was Ayton’s defense against Los Angeles and Milwaukee at home that locked those high-powered offenses down, Tyler Johnson who made key plays in the fourth quarter against Miami and Golden State, Kelly Oubre Jr. whose confidence is perhaps this team’s greatest X Factor. And it was Mikal Bridges who stole the ball from Steph Curry on the final possession of the game on Sunday night to see a victory in Oracle Arena to shock the Warriors.
The Suns revolve around Booker but they are looking more like a team. To answer the highly contested question as to whether he is a “winning player,” close viewers knew all along Booker needed more of a winning team around him. Midseason trades brought the Suns two young veterans with playoff experience, and development from the youngsters is paying off at the same time.
Booker’s Suns are jelling.
“It shows our growth,” Oubre told azcentral sports.
But growth doesn’t come overnight. Booker told the team after the All-Star break that most teams would fold based on the disappointment and chaos that has plagued the franchise the past year (or more), but they have been able to ignore all of that to coalesce around their leader. The signature moment for the Suns’ come-up was a 115-111 comeback victory over Golden State, perhaps the best all-around performance of Booker’s four-year career.
It was the crowning achievement in a season full of growing pains. “This was a very special game for our group,” Kokoskov said.
It hasn’t just been that shots are going in for Booker that weren’t falling in the winter. His teammates are holding up their own weight more consistently than they used to, but the team is also putting Booker in position to be more efficient.
In particular, they found him a complementary guard in Johnson who plays hard and repeatedly comes up big with tiny plays that tip the scale of games.
This season, 57 percent of Booker’s total three-point attempts have been pull-up jumpers. During these seven games, with Johnson in particular getting more comfortable playmaking in Kokoskov’s offense, that number is down slightly to 55 percent, and more than half of Johnson’s total passes every night fall into Booker’s hands.
Johnson is generating more than an assist per game passing to Booker and the reverse has been true as well, with Booker-to-Johnson connections generating 1.4 assists per game. The chemistry is growing between Phoenix’s trade deadline acquisition and their star.
When we talk about Booker needing another playmaker, sometimes the perception is that he needs to become Kyle Korver off the ball, constantly whirring around and never dribbling, with a precise passer feeding him open shots. Not quite.
Booker needs someone else to whom the defense must respond on or off the ball — someone who makes it harder for defenses to blitz Booker on the pick-and-roll or beat him up in the halfcourt. Johnson’s quickness and good decision-making are just as important as his sterling assist-to-turnover ratio. Simply being able to shoot and making the right decision more often than not make the role player Johnson a better backcourt companion than Booker has had in over a year.
Last season in Miami, according to Synergy Sports, Johnson was in the 90th percentile as a cutter, finishing around the basket and drawing free throws at will moving without the ball. Perhaps this is what Phoenix was envisioning when it traded for the highly paid combo guard, and indeed he has better balance for Booker than we’ve seen since Eric Bledsoe broke out in 2016-17.
This was clear all along — from the day the Suns traded Bledsoe until last Monday, the Suns didn’t get any help from productive, smart veterans on the court with Booker to maximize him or the team. Now, with Booker saying he’s at full health and the front office making moves to install players in their mid-20s, the results are showing. The missing part of the recipe wasn’t some intangible it-factor that Booker lacked, but good players who fit well with him.
Vice President of Basketball Operations James Jones said all along that pushing the limits of Booker’s body was part of the plan. It took about a dozen different knicks and bruises over the course of the season, but at age 22, Booker is rounding into form at the point in the season the Suns one day hope to be making a playoff push. By piecing together a roster that fits his talents and making his physical shape a top priority, Jones is also proving what a winning team looks like around Devin Booker.
Ayton may have felt like that barrage against New York was coming, but he embraces an outsized laid-back confidence, at least to the media. As Booker said, he’s got a mouth, and he wasn’t here last year, meaning the exhaustion of prolonged awfulness hasn’t quite smacked him in the face yet.
On the other hand, Booker’s confidence with the guys around him speaks volumes about just how right Ayton is to be awed by his teammate, whether Booker called 40, 50 or even 60 last Wednesday.