PHOENIX — There’s a lot of ways having star players can benefit a basketball team. Championships and big moments in the postseason come to mind first, but don’t forget the random regular-season wins on a Wednesday when that star decides their team isn’t losing that night.
The Phoenix Suns took on a depleted Chicago Bulls team, and while it was a game that followed the recent pattern of letting a team hang around and then some uneven play in crunch time, the Suns ultimately got it done for a 121-116 win thanks to Devin Booker.
He scored a season-high 45 points on 17-of-24 shooting.
“I think the fact that he does it in the course of how we’re playing, not like he’s out there hunting and trying to get it — it’s over the course of the game,” Chris Paul said of Booker. “I didn’t even realize till the fourth quarter he had as many as he did.”
The Bulls (19-27) were without starting guards Zach LaVine and Coby White, along with key reserve wing Garrett Temple. With that going on, head coach Billy Donovan said screw it and got weird. He started three very traditional bigs in Nikola Vucevic, Thaddeus Young and Lauri Markkanen. While Young and Markkanen can handle the ball, like Vucevic they aren’t particularly mobile, so it was startling to see.
But it worked. Chicago was plus-18 on the glass and 18 of its 50 rebounds came on offense.
Monty Williams was asked if that was frustrating at all given how it must have been a point of emphasis, but he wasn’t there.
“You always want perfection but it’s a tough task to play that way,” Williams said, as he noted the different defenses the Suns (33-14) tried to alleviate the issue.
The Suns weren’t fully engaged on either end to open the game. They led 39-37 through one quarter, tying the most points Phoenix has allowed in a first quarter all season.
The energy was a bit better in the second, but Chicago hit some timely shots to keep the game still fairly close before the Suns’ lead stretched out to nine at halftime.
Coming into the second half, Booker and Paul were both drilling shots with a high degree of difficulty. Paul scored six points in the opening four minutes and Booker added four.
That got the Suns lead up to 16 points midway through the third quarter, and as was the case Tuesday and has been the case a handful of times this season, the 3-10 minute window Phoenix would have to close out the game before it gets close was there. The Suns have failed at times this season to get through it before it shut, and then all of a sudden, it’s a one-possession game and there are four minutes left.
Wednesday trended that direction again before fully diverting course toward another one of those nights. After the Suns had a 14-point edge with 6:18 remaining in the third quarter, the Bulls went on an 11-2 run and hung around in the fourth quarter, slowly clawing away at the deficit before making it a one-possession game with 7:04 left.
It stayed close all the way down to the wire, and credit to the Suns for taking advantage of a light whistle by getting in the bonus and then repeatedly drawing fouls. Phoenix shot 18 free throws in the fourth quarter and made 15 of them, with Booker 7-of-8 on his own.
In the last 6:14, 14 of the Suns’ 20 points came via the free-throw line.
Booker entered the night having not made a shot in clutch minutes — under five minutes and a score within five points — since Feb. 24, missing his last 12 attempts. He broke that skid at the most important time, a running lay-in with 35 seconds left that put Phoenix up five.
Paul hit four free throws after that to ice it.
After a solid half-dozen games, one of those polarizing performances from Deandre Ayton was back in our life. In the third quarter, it really stood out how detached he was from the game. He fumbled a few passes and wasn’t finding a body to box out, something that almost assuredly was emphasized to the Suns with Chicago’s big lineup.
But then in the fourth quarter, he played great post defense on Nikola Vucevic, stopping him on three separate attempts before making two key free throws in crunch time.
It wasn’t enough to save Ayton’s night but was good to see. He finished with 10 points and four rebounds in 32 minutes.
Paul ended up with 19 points and 14 assists. Dario Saric’s comeback from a poor stretch of play continued, as he had 18 points off the bench.
Booker didn’t really need a get-right game per se, but it must have been nice to get back up to that view nearly atop the league mountain. Prior to Wednesday, he had shot 5-of-27 (18.5%) in the fourth quarter of his last nine games.
“Me personally, I haven’t made as many shots (lately) that I felt I should have made so I just wanted to impose my will and get some easy ones tonight,” he said.
For anyone who has watched Booker enough over his Suns career, it was something new and a strange aberration given how much he’s carried the franchise on his shoulders the last few years.
Through doing that for some rough seasons, he’s proven to have high-end mental fortitude, and so a funk in the closing stretches of a game should never be too much of a worry.
“I’ve been in this league six years now, 82 games is a long season, so if you get too hard on yourself through the course of the season on ups and downs, you’re going to be beating yourself up,” he said.
The bad fourth-quarter shooting will surely fade over time, and the 45-burger was a step toward that.