Devin Booker has his moment.
Maybe before it was the dribble move that broke Ben Simmons’ ankles last November as Booker’s hot fourth quarter clinched a huge Suns win. Certainly, that 2017 night against Boston is up there — the team photo holding the sheet of paper with “70” sharpied onto it. Others might have a different favorite night, from the buzzer-beater against Memphis this season to the night Damian Lillard endorsed him for an All-Star spot to Booker holding his own against Kevin Durant and others at the Team USA minicamp in 2016.
This one’s different.
It’s already etched in our minds: The jubilant stare up — from his position fully laid out on the floor — toward the hoop where his game-winner had just fallen through the net. The Suns may never change their Twitter avatar back to a simple logo.
It started with Booker making the right play off a double-team, getting rid of the ball. The Clippers’ defense forced an impossible shot, but Mikal Bridges made a play to keep the possession alive. Then Booker took it home with a miraculous, falling triumph of a shot.
Here's that final play in its entirety.— Suns Video Breakdown (@SunsVideo) August 4, 2020
Another thing: The Mikal Bridges defense. His long arms caused that turnover to begin with. Great hustle.
If he didn't run to the rim after that miss, he wouldn't have been in position to make that play.
My #Suns are officially on. pic.twitter.com/NQHgNHsgrM
“I want a reputation in this league as a winner,” Booker said postgame. “Through five years, I haven’t got to that part of my career yet, but I’m working as extremely hard as I can to get there.”
That’s why this one was different. It came in a victory, on an Orlando stage most believe the Suns shouldn’t have even been invited to join, against a Clippers team with championship aspirations. With Booker’s dagger, the Suns became just the fifth team — alongside the Lakers, Bucks, Rockets and Jazz — to beat the Clippers multiple times this season. More than just the game was on the line when Booker lifted up from 17 feet. This was his pride, and his team’s pride.
To believe that Booker is a winning player, you have to have seen him after losses. There have been so many of them that the notion might seem ridiculous, and certainly it hasn’t been tears after every loss. The bad ones get to him, though. When they are either within reach and fall away or when the Suns just don’t bring it. It kills him.
That makes the joy of winning all the more obvious. I haven’t seen every team in Orlando yet, but the Suns are a special kind of loose. Even without Kelly Oubre Jr. and Aron Baynes — two of their leaders — they are playing freely and appear unfazed by the stature of their competition or bad luck on the court.
“People can say it’s a nothing to lose mentality but we don’t look at it like that,” Booker said. “We have games to lose, games to win.”
The Suns matched everything Los Angeles did on Tuesday night. No run spiraled out of control, no feat of Kawhi Leonard sapped the Suns’ effort. Because they had Booker, on the best night of his career, completely locked in and playing for that moment, that win.
All the losing the past few years had a way of bringing dread. Booker would be asked when the next win might come, what would have to happen to get out of the funk. He had to answer for the failures of his coaches or the mistakes of his teammates.
When the Suns put together this roster last summer, much was forgiven in favor of competitiveness. At last, we’d all get to see what it looked like when Booker had capable teammates and a franchise around him geared toward winning.
It looks like this.
Like trading punches with a two-time Finals MVP; like sealing a huge win, the third straight, by nailing a ridiculous shot over an All-Defensive mainstay; like thrilling those same teammates.
But take a look at those guys screaming and embracing one another, realizing what they can be, and what three times already in the Bubble, they have been. So much is out of place — the water bottles all the way in the corner, intended to fill out what barely looks like a locker room, and the staff awkwardly standing in a circle. Even the players look kind of like they don’t know where to be. It’s not home.
If there’s any reason this one wasn’t as special, it’s that Booker didn’t get to celebrate it in front of the Valley.
Even for me, it felt weird not to get to watch a moment like that from a few feet away and then hurry over to the tunnel for the chance to talk with Booker afterward. Admittedly, it’s been very weird watching these games at all, at least on my end. Everything else in the world is just so loud.
But something about the potential of this group has been so energizing. Back-to-back wins over playoff teams, with so many different guys stepping up, how could you not be entertained? By the end of Tuesday night, I was up off my couch and in that way-too-close-to-the-TV stance that we’d all argue somehow alters the outcome of the game. The performance was just too riveting — they were about to beat the Clippers again, and Booker was really doing that.
Something about sighing through loss after loss the past five years as Booker slowly improved makes me feel like I’ve shared something with him, and I don’t think I’m alone. We all have tuned in, every night, knowing that in spite of the impending beatdown, we might see something special. That’s because of Booker.
That was always what was worth watching. It was again last night.
So it seems that maybe this moment was so special not because of any particular quality of it (though it was efficient and dazzling on its own), but because of all the ones that came before it. We’ve seen Booker play this well for naught, seen him dazzle in a blowout. We’ve watched Booker suffer fools who make a game out of knocking him online or on TV, then be unable to fully prove anyone wrong because what was around him simply wasn’t enough. And we’ve watched this season as that has all started to change.
Maybe it never made sense, but those who looked at the Suns and deemed Booker a losing player will now have to reconsider. It takes something like this to change perception, even if the reaction is often late. Booker has been a winning player, but in a huge spot, he got to show it.
Last night’s game-winner over Paul George was just the latest highlight of Booker’s impressive career, but it was the first moment that didn’t feel like it would fade away, perhaps the first of what’s next.