Devin Booker got years of experience carrying the Phoenix Suns. But it’s obviously a different task at hand on a good team as opposed to a bad one.
He showed in the bubble he was capable, as expected. In Sunday night’s 118-99 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves (7-28), he showed it again.
Around the mid-second quarter, it was evident that the Suns (22-11) were slogging around against the NBA’s worst team. They were turning over the ball in uncharacteristic ways, giving it away in ways where it was clearly their own fault and not just good defense. For the first time in 12 games, the Suns reached at least 15 turnovers, ending the night with 16 that Minnesota scored 22 points off.
“Just sloppy. There’s no other way to define it,” head coach Monty Williams said. “We just weren’t as sharp.”
When the game is in that kind of state, that’s got to be the time for one of Phoenix’s two All-Stars to step up.
He tallied 12 points in the second quarter and 21 the following period. Neither team led by double digits until the Suns at the end of that third quarter by 10.
After that, the other All-Star closed up shop.
Chris Paul assisted or scored on the Suns’ first 13 points of the fourth quarter. By then, Phoenix was up 20 and the game was effectively over.
Booker finished with a season-high 43 points to go along with five rebounds and five assists. He was 15-of-26 from the field and shot 12-for-13 at the foul line.
“He was in attack mode all night long … there was a moment I think after about the six-minute mark (of the second half) where he kind of took over the game and we stopped turning it over and that allowed for us to get some looks at the basket,” Williams said. “That’s just Book. He’s a complete offensive player. I told him just now 43 points the way he scores the ball is not something I take for granted and no one should. It’s a gift and we’re certainly grateful for it.”
Booker said postgame he didn’t want it to be “one of those nights,” referencing the multiple bad losses the Suns have had this year, and this would have qualified.
Paul posted 11 points, six rebounds and 15 assists while Deandre Ayton added 22 points and 10 rebounds in 26 minutes.
After a dominant fourth quarter followed a shaky first three in Friday’s win over the Chicago Bulls, Ayton had his first balanced, consistent game in a while. There were only or two noticeably negative plays he made. Outside of that, he knocked down some key shots out of the post and played good defense on the Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns, who shot 7-of-16 for 21 points.
“I thought he made a great effort tonight to seal and get position in the paint on the block and he didn’t give the position up … When he plays like that, it adds a dimension to our game,” Williams said.
These are the types of games Phoenix needs more out of from its big man. While the four-game stretch of “Dominayton” was the apex of his flashes, Ayton avoiding the brainfarts defensively, missed opportunities around the rim and dropped passes goes a long way. He’s too impactful of a player in different areas of the game to not be a definite positive every night.
Because of some awesome play from the bench at the beginning of the season, Williams didn’t have to stagger his two best players, Booker and Paul. The minutes with backup point guard Cam Payne featuring neither guy were going very well, but they inevitably soured in the last couple games.
Payne’s plus-minus was minus-35 the last two games after previously registering a net rating of 11.9, the second-best on the team.
On Sunday, Williams brought the stagger back, and in doing so, had E’Twaun Moore replace Payne completely in the rotation.
Moore is the best complementary option to play off Booker or Paul and Williams admitted that Moore is in better shape than he was at the beginning of training camp. It was a bit early to pull the plug on Payne considering how well he’s played overall, but the stagger did need to return, and with that, Moore being the other guy next to Booker or Paul makes sense.
And the numbers are there to support the move.
Including Sunday’s win in the Suns’ last 10 games, Moore is plus-55 in 149 minutes compared to Payne’s minus-8 in 130 minutes. For those 149 minutes, Moore has logged 49 with Payne, so that’s quite the run for him playing in the role Williams has him in now next to Booker or Paul.
It’s a development worth expanding on with the trade deadline coming up on March 25, and if Payne isn’t in the rotation, that leaves Phoenix with only two reliable ball-handlers. Exploring the market would be worthwhile for general manager James Jones.
That’s because the Suns are legit, winners in 14 of their last 17 games. There’s a big, big step forward to take from good to great, being capable of winning more than one playoff series. Something that would help that process is that type of move, and another in-season development a team can get is gauging itself against the best.
Ah, the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers next up on the schedule this Tuesday? Excellent. That’ll do just fine.