Devin Booker looked toward the rafters inside Staples Center and felt a light shining down on him.
The Los Angeles Lakers’ home arena — filled with jerseys, championship banners and legendary accomplishments — has a special feeling for those who are inside of it. But in particular, Booker saw two numbers, ‘8’ and ‘24’, that reminded him of what he needed to do.
“Honestly, I was thinking about [Kobe Bryant] and the conversations that we had, kind of about what we just went through, the postseason and being legendary and taking the steps to get there,” Booker said.
It was five years ago that Bryant, who died in a tragic helicopter accident last January, left Booker with a pair of shoes that read, ‘Be Legendary,’ after his last time playing in Phoenix. Those are words that the Suns’ rising star has taken to heart.
In his six seasons with the team, Booker has set several of the Phoenix Suns’ franchise records, including points in a single game (70) and most-ever 30-point games (113), among others. When it’s all said and done, he might be considered the greatest Sun of all time.
That potential was validated during Phoenix’s series-clinching 113-100 win over the Lakers in Game 6 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs on Thursday night. Booker, with Bryant watching over him, dropped a season-high 47 points on 15-of-22 shooting, including a 22-point first-quarter with perfect 6-of-6 clip from the 3-point line that put the Lakers in a 22-point deficit they could not recover from.
Phoenix advanced to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs and will host the third-seeded Denver Nuggets in Game 1 on Monday at 7 p.m. MT.
“Players like Book have a determination about them, and I’ve said this about him a number of times: He doesn’t run from the moment,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “And in this particular moment, the moment was the whole game.”
For the second straight contest, Booker was red-hot from the jump. The Suns’ starting shooting guard made six of his first seven shots, including three consecutive 3-pointers that lifted Phoenix to a 27-10 lead with 3:46 left in the first.
His scoring didn’t stop there. Booker closed the quarter with two more triples, including one after a hand-off from backup center Frank Kaminsky that gave the Suns a 33-12 advantage with 57.8 seconds left. Phoenix won the first quarter 36-14 and hit 10 3-pointers as a team, which tied an NBA playoff record for most in a period.
By halftime, Booker had 33 points, which exceeded his total in Game 5 (30) and was only eight points behind what the Lakers had in the first half (41).
“It was one of those deals where he was feeling it, but our guys understood that he was feeling it,” Williams said. “So we got a number of stops in the first quarter, they only scored 14 points so we were getting out and running.
“We had a conversation after Game 3 about, their (the Lakers’) defense is so good and they shift to the ball so well, he’s not going to get another look after the first one presents itself. So that was the mentality that we wanted him to have, and he’s a gifted scorer.”
With superstar forward LeBron James on their team, the Lakers weren’t going to go down easily, which materialized in the third quarter. Los Angeles went on a 14-9 run out of the halftime break to cut a 21-point Suns lead to 16 at 71-55, appearing to shift momentum. But that’s when Booker took control.
After a 3-pointer from Schroder to cut Phoenix’s advantage to 16, Booker hit a tough fall-away shot over Lakers shooting guard Wesley Matthews to end their run. Los Angeles responded with a 3-pointer from Matthews and driving layup from James, but Booker calmly answered with a hesitation pull-up over forward Markieff Morris to rebuild the Suns’ lead to 77-60.
The Lakers cut their deficit to as little as 79-67 with 4:09 left in the third, but Booker soon responded with three consecutive free throws after a technical foul on Los Angeles shooting guard Talen Horton-Tucker and personal foul on starting shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The Suns led after the third quarter, 89-76, with a chance to seize the moment in the fourth.
They did just that. Booker had just one field goal in the fourth but it was a big one — a two-handed slam to punctuate the Suns’ win with 37.9 seconds left — while running back on defense and talking smack to the Lakers on the floor.
“What?”— Marcus Thompson (@ThompsonScribe) June 4, 2021
— Devin Booker pic.twitter.com/Sbd3nVlPsl
For a Suns franchise that has had a longstanding rivalry with Los Angeles, Booker’s jawing — especially after the Lakers’ showboating at the end of Game 3 — was a welcome sight to see. But more importantly, it was a sign of something greater, and perhaps a new beginning:
The Suns have arrived, and Booker has too.
“I’m sometimes speechless,” said starting center Deandre Ayton. “When he’s scoring so big in halves and quarters — even like how he did today, I think he scored 19 points in a quarter. I was on the bench watching and I was like, ‘Dude, this has to be some type of history this dude’s making.’ Scoring like this, and I feel like he doesn’t miss sometimes.
“It was just great to experience all of this, to be honest. I’ve seen him go to another level with my own eyes, and just seeing him and being a part of that is actually amazing, just being a part of his legacy.”
As the clock wound down, Booker embraced Ayton, high-fived his teammates and appeared resolute as he walked off the floor. The Suns knocked off the defending champions, something Booker in his postgame interview said he wouldn’t have wanted any other way.
But this playoff journey is just beginning. Phoenix will have a few days off before its series against the Nuggets begins on Monday. Denver advanced to last year’s Western Conference Finals — albeit with starting point guard Jamal Murray healthy — and has arguably the leading candidate for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award, Nikola Jokic, on its roster.
The task won’t be easy, but as Booker learned from Bryant, nothing is. You have to be legendary, something that Booker is beginning to do on the biggest stage.
“I know he was here tonight,” Booker said of Bryant. “I know he was here tonight, I know he’s in the building, I know he’s proud.”