LOS ANGELES — Devin Booker has been a good scorer since he came into the league in 2016. But he has taken it to another level since Kevin Durant joined the Phoenix Suns in February.
Booker scored a game-high 45 points on a blistering 18-for-29 shooting (62 percent) in the Suns’ 129-124 victory over the Clippers in Game 3 on Thursday night at Crypto.com Arena, as Phoenix took a 2-1 lead in their best-of-7 first-round series.
Booker has now scored 109 points in the first three games of the series, the most for a Suns player since Charles Barkley (112 points) in 1994.
“You can’t leave [Durant], obviously. He draws a lot of attention,” Booker said. “A lot of the buckets I scored, I went right to him right after and said, ‘You opened that up.'”
Durant scored 28 points himself, going 11-for-11 from the free throw line, as the Clippers threw multiple defenders and looks at him to compensate for Kawhi Leonard missing the game with a knee injury.
“I almost feel bad for Kevin sometimes because he’s like an expensive decoy out there,” Suns coach Monty Williams joked. “He’s standing at the 28-foot hash and the defender is right in his face. That gives Book a number of opportunities to attack the basket.
“Even when we run him in actions … sometimes two guys go with Kevin when he comes off of a screen. So that opens up the floor for everyone else.”
Booker has been feasting on the space.
Thursday night Booker went 7-for-11 on open field goal attempts. Of those 11 open attempts, Durant was on the court for 10 of them, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“I probably didn’t create that,” Durant joked afterward, recalling a specific play where Booker credited him for opening up a shot for him. “He’s so good, he can get whatever he wants. They just can’t help as much or as aggressively.”
This is the chemistry the Suns were hoping for when they traded for Durant in the middle of the season. The challenge that trade created was sacrificing key role players and depth to create a top-heavy superteam around Booker, Durant, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton.
That has meant heavy minutes for the stars during the playoffs. Booker played nearly 45 minutes on Thursday and has sat just 12 minutes in the three games of the series thus far. Williams acknowledged that’s not ideal over the course of what Phoenix hopes is a long playoff run. But the Clippers forced Phoenix into that position behind a scrappy effort from Norman Powell (42) points, Russell Westbrook (30 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds) and Bones Hyland (20 points).
LA even cut the lead to 119-116 on Westbrook’s free throws with 1:44 remaining, but Torrey Craig hit a clutch 3-pointer off an assist from Durant to extend the lead out to 122-116 and Booker hit a 5-foot runner and made a free throw to seal the win for Phoenix.
“It’s that time,” Booker said. “Win-or-go-home. I love it. I dedicate my whole entire life, and I have since a kid, to this sport and this game. This stage is all we can ask for.
“[Clippers coach Tyronn Lue] does a good job of switching it up throughout. Feels like every possession they’re in a different defense. It’s about realizing that and trying to take advantage and get the best situation.”
Thursday the Clippers threw every look at Booker, but nothing worked. He scored on all eight half-court defenders he faced, while going 5-for-6 in transition.
“I expect the Clippers to make an adjustment, try to take me away [next game],” Booker said. “Then it’ll be [Durant’s] time to do it. That’s just how we play.”