As he was pacing the Phoenix Suns to the first of the four required wins it would take for them to advance to the NBA Finals, Devin Booker appeared to flip a switch. He looked to be deciphering exactly what it would take to eviscerate his competition – the LA Clippers – in real-time. Though it certainly doesn’t take a ton of time. Instead of merely racing haphazardly into a pull-up jumper directly off the dribble, he hesitates and almost seems to allow his defender to reset. An odd choice, no? But it’s what follows that is so lethal.
That hesitation not only allows Booker’s defender to attempt to reset, but Booker to burst into what could be a drive but what often is a pull-up – just a delayed one. The fraction of a second between the hesitation and ensuing dribble is more than enough to create separation between Booker and his man, and though his opponents vary in their deterrence, length, what have you, a shot-maker as skilled as Booker hardly struggles to get the shot off. It’s methodical, yet as swift as an arrow traveling from a bow to a bullseye. (Which, ironically, is how most of Booker’s shots tend to end: with his own kind of bullseye.)
During this Phoenix Suns playoff run, Devin Booker has made the mid-range his domain. But aside from Game 1 in the Conference Finals, he’s struggled.
He did it once. And then again. And again, and again, and eventually, the only thing his personal offensive barrage was worth being dubbed was what ESPN’s Mike Breen resorted to on the call: “It’s a Booker bonanza!”, he shouted, seconds after Booker’s second fading jumper in as many possessions. Moments before Breen’s call, his partner, Jeff Van Gundy, fittingly noted that “if you don’t have somebody who can get to [the midrange] as teams try to take away the three and the basket, you can’t win big playoff games. Booker provides it, Paul George provides it. Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul… those are the guys that can make something up out of something very little.”
There it is. The essence of what Booker seemed to have deciphered: Making something up out of something very little.
Yet since his explosion in Game 1, Booker has turned in a few performances that have amounted to, quite literally, something very little. Though the Suns lead the series, 3-2, and before Monday night’s home loss, led the series 3-1, Booker looks to be struggling to find any sort of rhythm. He’s been hounded by a bevy of Clipper deterrents from the moment he touches the ball to the moment he’s forced to release it, whether it be by pass or by shot.
The primary defender has been Patrick Beverley, whose head managed to break Booker’s nose in Game 2, and who has helped to hold Booker to 33 percent shooting between games 2 and 5. Despite having recorded more than 20 points in four of five games in the series (he had a meager 15 in Game 3), it’s hardly been an efficient 20-or-more. Whether or not his team is winning has also been a bit of a crapshoot.
Booker is hardly used to shooting crap; he’s far more used to the aforementioned bullseyes, the silky-smooth buckets that have played an indelible role in his role as one of the league’s most gifted offensive threats. But when no one is falling for the hesitations, the quick pull-ups that often draw fouls, or the wide-open chances delivered directly into his shooting pocket from the hand of a Point God, what’s a marksman to do?
This particular marksman has been forcing it. Between Games 2 and 5, Booker’s switch flipped in the other direction, and he began rushing his shots and tilting his body more than necessary. While it might seem minor, the levels of contortion he’s had to try to reach to even get off a shot look exorcistic compared to the typical fadeaways and leaning jumpers he’s used to putting up.
Some of this can be attributed to Booker making the decisions himself, electing to attempt the more difficult shot because he knows he can make it (albeit inconsistently). But it’s also a credit to the Clippers, who have been more active in running around screens as Booker runs off them, getting a hand or arm in his line of vision just as he looks to create off the dribble. While he seems to be getting shots off with no trouble at all – he still attempted just over 20 shots per game in Games 2-5 – pressure from defenders with either length (Marcus Morris, Terance Mann) or vexing speed (Beverley) has been effective.
It’s forced Booker away from the patience he so efficiently utilized in Game 1. He’d dribble and dribble and dribble until finding himself in a situation that resembled something very little, and then fake a pass before pulling up. Or he might perform a stop on a dime, take one last dribble, and straighten his torso to be in line with the rim, giving him all the leverage and his defender none. Or, maybe, he’d split two defenders before fading to his right, an angle that his opposition couldn’t replicate given their inability to keep in front of him after the initial split.
It was an offensive masterclass for one night, and it’s been followed by anything but. Even a 31-point outing in Game 5 came in a loss and on 41 percent shooting from the field. The only reasons he even sniffed 30, let alone surpassed it, are the fact that he went 4-of-6 from three and 9-of-11 from the free-throw line.
Booker has always been an incredible, highly intelligent finisher and creator with the ball, but he often did so on teams that could only dream of making the playoffs, let alone the Conference Finals. This season, the addition of Chris Paul proved to be as valuable as advertised, with Paul dictating the offense and Booker providing the primary scoring spark.
But in these playoffs, with Paul intermittently hampered by injury and by health and safety protocol, both offensive burdens are on Booker’s shoulders. That’s not to say he can’t handle it – he most certainly has, to the tune of 27.3 points per game in the playoffs. But perhaps the Clippers have figured out exactly how to bring his tear to a screeching halt.
Of course, I’ll write this, Hoops Habit will publish it, and Devin Booker will score 56 tonight on 19-of-24 shooting to close out the Clippers all but on his own and reach his first NBA Finals. Phoenix would certainly welcome something along those fictional lines; given what Booker has been proven capable of thus far in the postseason, no one should rule it out. But should he struggle again in Game 6, and should his team drop yet another closeout game in these Western Conference Finals, they’ll be in dire need of a superstar turn in Game 7.
Once again, it will be on Devin Booker to make something up out of something very little for the Phoenix Suns.