Devin Booker went to bed in Phoenix on Tuesday night with his fifth NBA playoff series win and a credible claim to being the best player in the world right now. He did it on both ends, scoring nearly 40 a night on 60-plus percent shooting while also creating turnovers at a league-leading rate. Coming off the worst playoff series of his life against Dallas in 2022, the initial instinct could be to credit Kevin Durant or blame the Clippers’ defense. But Booker made a tremendous impact by being more proactive and relentless than we’ve ever seen him.
Glimpses of these strides forward were there as early as November, when Booker put the Suns on his back while Chris Paul and Cameron Johnson were injured for multiple weeks. That month, Booker averaged 29 points and six assists per game. As late as Dec. 6, the Suns were first in the Western Conference despite getting slammed with injuries and relying on Booker more than ever.
Building off lessons learned in playoff losses, Booker took it upon himself to diversify the Suns’ offense from a perimeter ball movement scheme more predicated on getting into space and canning jumpers to one that created higher-efficiency shots. After driving to the basket fewer than 10 times per game last season, Booker upped that to nearly 13 this year. He took nearly a quarter of his shots at the basket, compared with just 15 percent last season. He got fouled on almost five percent more of his shot attempts and went from taking one free throw for every four field goals to more than one for every three. By shooting inside more frequently, Booker helped make the Suns’ offense more efficient overall. The team scored nearly 12 points more per 100 possessions when Booker was on the court versus on the bench. It was no coincidence.
In the first round against Los Angeles, Booker transferred those adjustments to a bigger stage. He drove to the basket more than 17 times a night, eighth among all NBA playoff players. He maintained his high foul-drawing rate and shot 75 percent at the rim, which is better than his 7-foot teammate, Deandre Ayton.
But most importantly, Booker has begun to clean up perhaps his biggest weakness. Against the Bucks and Mavericks the past two years, Booker could be goaded into mistakes through what he would call “junk defenses”: sending multiple bodies at him to force the ball out of his hands or into the other team’s hands. When tall, long defenders prevented him from getting downhill or forced him back toward the time stripe, he frequently coughed the ball up or threw it straight to the defense.
While the floor is undoubtedly more open with Durant and even Chris Paul spacing as opposed to Mikal Bridges or Jae Crowder, that didn’t stop the Clippers from blitzing Booker, especially after he got hot. The difference in those situations is that Booker is now infinitely more comfortable making a quick, simple drop pass to the rolling big man or the skip pass to the weak-side corner if the defense takes away the roller.
This is the difference between a proactive Booker and a reactive Booker. In seven games against Dallas last spring, Booker had 27 turnovers and just 32 assists. In a five-game smoking of the Clippers, he had the same amount of assists to only 15 turnovers.
Still, to fully appreciate how and why Booker was able to carve up the Clips, the first step is realizing why he was in position to wield that high-octane electric carving knife in the first place. Instead of Paul walking the ball up the floor to run Monty Williams’ trusted pick-and-roll ball movement system, Booker had the ball in his hands from the jump.
Booker set up screen-and-rolls with Ayton at the top of the key. He pulled the defense apart like a loose thread in a ball of yarn. He found the openings and darted into them. And with his proactivity as a passer, the Clippers ran out of answers.
This is a stark contrast from how Booker was used in previous seasons. Because everything ran through Paul, the ball frequently hot-potatoed to Booker coming off a screen or dribble hand-off, often along the sideline or toward help in the middle of the floor. Now that he has leveled up as a passer and ball-handler, defenses no longer have the luxury of loading up on Booker before he ever touches the rock. As Booker found Durant for spot-up threes repeatedly toward the end of the series, both of Booker’s developments were on display.
He now has the control to keep his dribble as the defense collapses on him, as well as the awareness and skill to spray passes everywhere. Defenses have to respect everything he can do from the minute he steps across halfcourt. And increasingly, he can do everything.
The problem with cutting too big a piece of credit pie for Durant is that it ignores the very decisions the Clippers made — and the ones, potentially, that Denver will make. Even with Durant out there as a spacer in the corner, Los Angeles made the determination (either the coaching staff or the players on the floor) that sending two guys toward Booker and an extra guy away from Durant and toward the rolling big man was the best option to cool off Booker amid the series of his life. Booker was the focus of the defense, and he made them pay. In the process, it was Booker breaking down the defense and setting Durant up.
Durant struggled a bit to get downhill as a scorer or isolate against the aggressive attention the Clippers sent his way. The Clippers had success poking the ball away from Durant on the perimeter, and when he posted up, he felt the entirety of the Clippers’ defense loaded toward his side of the floor, making shots and passes close to impossible.
Heading toward a Game 1 in Denver, the Suns are unlikely to take several games to get their bearings like they did against the Clippers. They can deploy both their star scorers even more effectively by building off what Booker has shown.
When Booker is the pick-and-roll ball-handler and Nikola Jokic is guarding the screener, the Nuggets have two options: bring Jokic up to the level of the screen to prevent Booker from getting downhill and ideally force the ball out of his hands, or drop Jokic into the paint to contest Booker’s drives and Ayton’s rolls. Luckily for Booker, that’s exactly what he saw — and repeatedly beat — from Clippers center Ivica Zubac.
Denver doesn’t have the length or physicality top to bottom in its wing rotation to send waves of bodies at him like Los Angeles did. That means Booker can go into each game (and each possession) with even more of a proactive game plan to torch the Nuggets.
Another thing the Nuggets do not have is a secondary rim protector like Giannis Antetokounmpo or even Nicolas Batum. That means Booker can try some new things — Paul rightly praised his “creativity” after Game Five — against Denver from his bag of tricks. Booker can reject the screen by the big man completely and blow past whatever Denver’s plans were to stop him. At that point it’s up to help defenders like Michael Porter Jr. or Aaron Gordon to contest.
If the Nuggets do drop Jokic into the paint defensively and if Ayton’s screens can take Kentavious Caldwell-Pope out of the play for even a half-second, Booker can once again bomb away on pull-up threes in a way he hasn’t since Game 2 against the Pelicans last season. The other stuff is so good he rarely has to put on his Lillard impression, but Booker can make those deep threes off the bounce, and the “u” in unguardable becomes capitalized.
Booker getting to this point is not surprising. Despite dropping 40 on Milwaukee twice in the Finals at age 24, Booker is still on the upswing. This is only his third go-round facing the minefield of playoff defenses. He knows what it’s like now to be the focal point of an entire team’s gameplan, and he’s learning how to beat it.