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In Game 6, Devin Booker did what we knew was capable of but weren’t sure he’d ever get the opportunity to do

Devin Booker put the Suns on his back to slay the Lakers.

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2021 NBA Playoffs - Los Angeles Lakers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Suns went up 29 in the second quarter of Game 6 on Thursday night, I got to thinking.

There’s a story I’ve told many times about the open practice in 2019 when young fans approached Devin Booker (then barely 23) with gifts, drawings and Suns gear, and he generously accepted it all before heading out to midcourt to thank the entire fanbase. At 23! I thought about that story during Game 6, as well as many more.

I remembered the double-team controversy (which Chris Haynes so delightfully reminded us of this week), the FIFA World Cup nonsense, the “looter in a riot” Twitter blowout, everything Bill Simmons had said, the Kevin Arnovitz goat crap story, and every other slight before and since. That largely led me back to all the times that we’d all discussed Booker being traded.

In particular, the Suns’ eight game losing streak back in December 2019, which feels to me like the fever pitch for a lot of these things. After a hot start and with Deandre Ayton struggling between a suspension and an ankle injury, I don’t think I’m alone in having felt in that moment like all the niceties of hiring Monty Williams, signing Ricky Rubio, whatever — it was all for not.

That turned out to be silly, as the Suns got it together in January and February, the NBA shut down a few weeks after that, and then the Bubble happened. Yeah, the Bubble came to mind a whole lot during Game 6, too. Booker over the Clips. Cam Payne and Jevon Carter, the entire length of the court. And then most strikingly, that speech from Monty. The one nobody has forgotten.

A lot was in my mind as I watched Devin Booker rain in threes, solve the Lakers’ defense, and galvanize his team with trips to the free-throw line, incredible finishes, and a bunch of stuff that altogether felt like something that nobody his age with his lack of playoff experience should be capable of. Watching him, though, what also snuck its way into my thoughts was a profound lack of surprise. After all, between the Bubble, all those regular season game-winners, and his mentality day in and day out, Booker did all he could during the first five seasons of his career to prove he was ready for a scenario like he faced on Thursday.

In fact, I was more surprised by the fact Booker finally made more than six threes in this game than the fact he scored 47 points on 22 field goal attempts. That part felt reasonable, somehow. He cracked the code of this particular opponent and figured out the parts of his game that he could use to break them down.

The best of the NBA have been trying to tell us this would happen for a while. Whether it was Kobe, KD, Paul George or LeBron himself, star after star after star for years have publicly celebrated Booker’s brilliance. They knew he had what it took from a mentality and skill standpoint to get it done in the summer, and here he was doing it.

Going through the past half-decade as a Suns fan, it hardly felt as if the franchise was building toward anything. There was so much losing. The fanbase started bleeding even its diehard fans after a while. Heck, this website has a hugely different cast of contributors because, well, it wasn’t very fun to write about Archie Goodwin or Mike James the past few years.

Through Booker, though, there was a sense of direction. As he improved, so followed the organization. Young guys like Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson were drafted because they fit with Booker, a young star whom James Jones and Monty Williams knew could be the Sun around which the rest orbited. Getting to coach Booker was a big reason why Williams wanted to coach the team, and as Chris Paul has reminded us countless times, Booker was the main reason the Point God wanted to come to Phoenix.

It was subtle and roundabout, but all of it was building toward Game 6. That’s why it was a given that Booker would be the one to vanquish the Lakers. As he goes, the rest follows. Despite the many coaches who came through this team over the years and the dozens and dozens of teammates, Booker was improving his game and leadership, despite the difficulty of it all. He was readying himself for a moment just like Game 6.

“I’m watching him on the fly go from a guy who scored a ton of points into a guy who can lead a team in the playoffs and be in a different class,” Williams said postgame.

The Lakers started to make a comeback in the second half and I can honestly say I never really felt like the outcome was in doubt. Sure, a lot of that was because LA did something super irresponsible trying to play Anthony Davis, because no Laker could make a shot, and because LeBron looked very human. But it was also because I was watching this guy who took the Valley on his back while nobody else seemed suited to and kept doing it all the way through Game 6. He had a response for every Laker run, a shot for every defensive scheme, and some choice words for anyone who tried to cross him.

It was hard to get out of my own head on Thursday night, but there’s plenty of time for more basketball starting Game 1 on Monday. I was perfectly happy to live in those memories, because it provided perspective on all the crap in the past and how good it felt to put it behind us and watch something play out before our eyes we all believed to our cores could happen, but were never sure would come. Something that only Booker could do.

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