Sometimes ya just gotta hop in the JanSport and let someone carry you. If no backpack is available, get on the guy’s back. Understand the moment, step aside and allow something special to happen.
The Phoenix Suns’ problems this month persisted on Saturday night but Devin Booker is elite enough right now to make those issues fade away on the right night. And boy, was Saturday the right night for him in a 118-114 Phoenix win over the Pelicans.
Booker exploded for a season-high 58 points, setting a new record for Footprint Center and lifting the Suns (18-12) to a 24-point comeback in the second half. Phoenix was reeling and had no other answers offensively except for Booker.
And that turned out to be enough.
“I wish it was something that I did or schematically we tried to figure some things out (but) he just had one of those nights,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “I think the only person that could have stopped him from scoring was me by taking him out of the game.”
Booker was coming off a 30.4% field goal percentage in his last four games, and Williams mentioned in his coaches meeting Saturday morning that it was at the point where you knew something huge was on the horizon to correct that.
“I was just making shots, man,” Booker said. “I’ve been in a bit of a slump and just gotta keep shooting. That’s what I live by and I was put in the right situations to make the right plays.”
After a 13-0 run in the mid-third quarter that put Phoenix within 11, Booker scored the Suns’ next 25 points. It was that zone we’ve seen him reach about a dozen times eight years in, where shots from anywhere on the floor at whatever angle were going in. At the end of it, he had 55 of the Suns’ 97 points.
Devin Booker dropped his second 50+ point game of the season tonight ?
So tough. pic.twitter.com/FcqYRSkoTZ
— NBA (@NBA) December 18, 2022
That turned out to be the Suns’ best defense, because Booker reached such a rhythm that it threw off the Pelicans’ (18-11) high-octane offense that still managed to shoot 58% in the game and produced just 51 points in the second half. Williams emphasized confidence to his bunch at halftime and credited Booker for helping the team find some.
Once Josh Okogie’s free throws tied the game at 7:04 left, Booker invited the double teams he knew were coming by calling screens up to allow his teammates to break down New Orleans in a 4-on-3 fashion.
This was a mixed bag but Okogie’s phenomenal effort with three offensive rebounds over the closing stretch secured three of his own second-chance points. The Pelicans’ rotations onto Booker left Chris Paul open, who hit a pair of 3s in the fourth quarter, including the semi-dagger at 1:02 left on a catch-and-shoot look to put the Suns up five.
“Those are the shots that we need,” Booker said of it. “That’s what it’s going to come down to if teams try to throw junk defenses, I mean it’s basic math. It’s 5-on-5, two people are on me (then) there’s going to be one open.”
Zion Williamson isolated quickly on the next possession and turned it over, his second in the last four minutes. He was spectacular at getting downhill as usual but those were two costly errors, and credit to Booker for hunting Williamson in switches on the other end to wear the star forward down more.
The Suns overcame a terrific offensive night for the Pelicans thanks to 27 points off turnovers, 17 second-chance points and a 25-of-35 mark at the foul line.
Phoenix’s offense didn’t have much to it outside of Booker, as the absences of Deandre Ayton (left ankle sprain), Cam Johnson (meniscus tear), Cam Payne (right foot sprain) and Duane Washington Jr. (hip strain) are really hurting the team in multiple aspects.
Paul was the Suns’ next-highest scorer at 18 points, and that was largely thanks to a 5-of-7 night from 3. Mikal Bridges (15 points) and Bismack Biyombo (11) were the only other Phoenix players in double figures.
This is one of those situations from an injury perspective where Landry Shamet has to be better. Throw in the way Paul is playing right now and that’s even more of the case. Saturday’s 1-of-6 shooting night made it 19-of-56 (33.9%) for him in his last nine games and his shooting percentages on the season are right around last year’s, the worst season of his career.
The hard truth for a guy who works his tail off and checks all the boxes of the types of guys general manager James Jones has successfully picked out the last three years is that Shamet’s had 21 games now to find the rhythm he couldn’t last year and still hasn’t. Damion Lee, Okogie or Washington should be considered for more minutes.
Okogie, in particular, is at the point now where he should start until Johnson gets back. His energy has been a true difference-maker while the Suns remain in a bit of a haze this month, especially on defense, where Okogie is one of the best defenders on the team. He didn’t even make a field goal on Saturday (0-for-3) but picked up all seven of his points at the foul line and grabbed four of his six rebounds on the offensive glass.
Williamson scored 24 of his 30 points in the second half but found himself like Booker without much help after C.J. McCollum (27 points) and Jonas Valanciunas (12) played a huge part in that 24-point lead. Brandon Ingram (ankle) was still out, so the Suns will have to wait for a potential postseason rematch to get New Orleans at full strength.