PHOENIX — The Denver Nuggets have lived a charmed life relative to everyone else in these playoffs, with no injury issues and very little in the way of being tested — looking very much like a clear favorite to get out of the battered Western Conference for the first time in franchise history.
Head coach Michael Malone knew, though, a storm was a’coming in Game 3 of their second-round playoff series against the Phoenix Suns.
“Things have gone really, really smooth. And adversity is coming,” Malone said before the game, knocking on the dais as he spoke. “It’s knocking on the door. And we have to be ready for that.”
That storm was named Devin Booker.
Booker exploded for one of the signature games in the playoffs, hitting 20-of-25 shots en route to a 47-point night along with 9 assists and 6 rebounds to bring the Suns in position to tie the series Sunday after a 121-114 win at Footprint Center.
It might not be the greatest sign that Booker has to have that kind of night — along with Kevin Durant working himself into a 39-point, 9-rebound, 8-assist performance — to beat a Nuggets team that wasn’t operating at peak efficiency.
But Booker’s pressure and embracing of everything that comes with this playoff setting had to play a part in the Nuggets not matching the moment.
“That’s who he is. That’s his makeup,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “He doesn’t run from the tough stuff. I’ve noticed that since I’ve been around them.”
It’s not easy to gain entrance into the league’s highest strata, but Booker seems to keep rising, and he keeps knocking on superstardom’s door. One thing that is indisputable is his place in this season’s playoff hierarchy. Only Jimmy Butler has been this consistently excellent across the board, and Booker carried that burden with him Friday night.
There was nervous energy all around Footprint Center, remnants of last season’s disappointment still in the air.
For his part, Booker has been part of too many sorry Suns teams to bow out meekly here, even if the odds to win the series seem stacked against him.
“This is all I have dreamed of as a kid. You know, I’ve dedicated a lot of my life, I moved away from my family when I was young to, you know, pursue being in these moments,” Booker said. “My dad played and just being a fan of the game, you know, it was my way through life. So, you know, it’s not time to fold up now.”
Eighteen of his points came in the first quarter, which was necessary in the worst way because Durant was having an uncharacteristic rough start. Durant began by missing eight of his first 10 shots and finished 12 for 31, still drawing plenty of attention which seemed to open things up all around.
“I knew I was gonna have more on-ball responsibility,” Booker said. “Trying to find that balance between being aggressive and making sure everybody’s involved. You know it’s gonna be a faster tempo out there.”
He went back to his “Point Booker” days, where he experimented with playing point guard while the Suns were floundering. And despite playing 41 minutes, he helped push the pace and tried to get Nikola Jokić in spots where they could challenge him and force the two-time MVP to play defense.
Without Paul, it’s a more logical path and perhaps the best one to make the Nuggets uncomfortable. They weren’t in full control the entire game, but it never fully left their grasp, either.
Booker was able to offset the night Jokić had, the first time a player had 25 points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists in a playoff game. Jokić finished with 30-17-17, with his only caveat being 6 turnovers.
Durant was in awe of the night, but not surprised Booker pulled it off. Booker is the reason Durant is here, and before that, Paul wouldn’t be in Phoenix if Booker weren’t the shining star in need of help.
“I don’t understand why this is such a surprise to anyone,” Durant said. “Since Day 1, they might not have been a playoff [team], but he’s shown his skills since his rookie year. And a lot of people overlook that and didn’t see him go for 45 and think it’s something new. He’s always been on this type of time.”
Durant kept calling him a superstar and a leader, saying everyone is following Booker’s lead. He’s long been a fan of Booker’s game, going back to looking at the box scores when those Suns teams weren’t much to watch.
“He’s a team builder. Like all the things you want in a superstar he brings it and he doesn’t say much about it,” Durant said. “A lot of people don’t write fluff stories or pieces about what he brings every single day, but we’ve seen it and we appreciate it and you started to see it on a national scale the last few years.”
Acquiring Durant certainly felt risky on its face, but last season’s flop in the second round cannot be forgotten. It depleted the Suns’ depth, but it was clear that team had reached its apex — particularly with Paul being the undisputed leader.
It’s hard to depend on his availability, let alone his performance, so the Suns needed to pivot. If nothing else, they needed to maximize this time when Booker is still ascending. Getting Durant sacrificed some of the later for now, even if the “now” wasn’t going to be a guarantee.
It’s possible Durant shakes off some of the misses he’s had in the past two games. He stated he was pressing a bit early because he felt the looks were so natural, but he hasn’t truly exploded yet.
And if Booker stays in this rhythm, Durant could easily match his energy and make this a lot more than just interesting. Williams granted Durant some bail by saying Durant is still finding his way with this team, even in this playoff atmosphere.
Durant didn’t see it that way completely.
“I’m not figuring [it] out, I just gotta make shots. Like there’s some good ones, I’m rushing some shots, I’m thinking too much out there,” Durant said. “I’m thinking too much. I’m getting to the point where I’m super comfortable with the team. I’m close.”
With the drama and intrigue happening in the series below them in the West bracket, Denver’s relative dominance has gone unnoticed. The Minnesota Timberwolves were never going to be viewed as a reasonable test, and once the Los Angeles Clippers were beset with injuries, the Suns weren’t truly tested in Round 1.
Now, Booker has exploded, as Malone foretold, and the Suns are still the hunter, still searching to maximize this opportunity in front of them.
If nothing else, Booker will make sure he goes down swinging.