With just less than 4:00 left in the fourth quarter, it nearly happened. In the fight for a loose ball, Devin Booker got tied up with a Memphis scrapper and nearly nicked his ankle. It looked a lot worse than it ended up being — Booker sat on the ground a moment grabbing his lower leg before popping up to finish out the game.
Fans breathed a sigh of relief. They were likely wondering when was the last time they had seen him on the bench resting. No wonder his body was aching.
It’s inexplicable that Booker — who will have missed 43 games in the last years if he stays healthy the rest of the year — would ever have a stretch of games after the Suns were already eliminated from the playoffs where he played 40 minutes per game.
That’s not to say 50 points isn’t exciting once, twice or (nearly) three times. It’s not to say the team has any chance of winning without him on the court that long. But it’s the truth.
Booker has suffered too many injuries to keep track of over the course of the past two seasons and was open about how much physical setbacks affected his performance this year. He also acknowledged this incredible stretch since the All-Star break coincided with his best health all season. The two are clearly connected.
The Suns should ride that out. They’ve played through him even when the double- and triple-teams come, something they avoided early in the season. With no one else to create offense, Booker gets to keep the ball now even when all five defenders are between he and the rim. And to even be competitive in the past four games, the Suns have needed it.
However, it’s completely meaningless. Even if the Suns had won all four — meaningless. The end of the year (again) is about finding chemistry, developing individually, and creating good habits.
Once Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tyler Johnson went down, it was obvious the winning would stop. The right response would have been to ratchet up minutes for the likes of Elie Okobo, De’Anthony Melton and Ray Spalding and played out the year to see what the young guys looked like. Booker would still have been a huge part of that equation, just not involved to the extraordinary degree he has been since the vets got hurt.
Fans want to see greatness. That’s what makes this fun. But fans also want to see greatness next year, the year after that and in perpetuity.
As Tom Haberstroh wrote while analyzing injury proliferation in the NBA in February 2018, “the greatest predictor of injury is prior injury.” Booker has been good for a couple missed games every month or so all year. Interim general manager James Jones acknowledged Booker’s minor injuries are part of the team’s plan to build his stamina and conditioning. That may be why they are riding him while his health is riding high, but that can all come crashing down in an instant, particularly just weeks removed from the last hamstring pull.
Right now, most fans would probably say it’s been worth it to see Booker put on this fantastic scoring show. The games don’t matter, but big-time moments from a franchise cornerstone are unforgettable.
It’s a fine line for Booker as well as the fans. They would answer quite differently however, if that inconspicuous dinged ankle in the fourth quarter had turned into something worse.