PHOENIX — We are a year into Devin Booker’s ascension to superstar and Tuesday’s 110-80 Phoenix Suns win over the Dallas Mavericks to take a 3-2 series lead was the latest citation for that case.
Booker has now played in three Game 5’s when Pheonix is tied 2-2 and has starred in all three. Last year there was the first round against the Los Angeles Lakers when he had 30 points in 32 minutes and then the NBA Finals versus the Milwaukee Bucks when he recorded his second straight 40-point game.
The first 2022 edition was 28 points on 11-of-20 from the floor with seven rebounds, two assists, two steals and two turnovers.
Phoenix was coming off two straight losses in Dallas looking completely out of sorts and simultaneously losing a grip on its identity in the process.
The cobwebs of the uncharacteristic mistakes still showed in Game 5 but Booker’s phenomenal outing singlehandedly supercharged the revival of the best team in the world.
His 12 points and constant pressure with the ball in the first quarter kept his group above water, only down three, while the same issues persisted.
“He’s just getting to his spots,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said of Booker. “There were a few times in pick-and-roll where he would get to his spot and raise up. Book has shotmaking ability that’s unique to very few people and in those moments when we need him to settle us down, sometimes it’s scoring that can settle you down.”
The next period, you could feel the Suns almost rejecting the notion that they were going to play another second like they had in the past two games. Williams had an animated speech after the game’s first timeout in the first quarter when he told his group the energy levels weren’t terrible but not nearly good enough for as big of a game as this one.
As you would expect, the lads listened to the Coach of the Year.
Even though bad defensive rotations, brainfarts and the majority of the rotation playing poorly still popped up, they put in an absolutely relentless effort to find themselves again.
Booker was at the helm of it, a +11 in the second quarter to have the Suns up three that was all earned through constant energy. That didn’t immediately translate on the scoreboard until the second half when it was a dam-breaking shockwave.
Phoenix blew the absolute doors off the Mavericks in a 33-14 run that included a 17-0 surge across 5:25. Booker added another dozen points and was +19, meaning he was +30 in the two middle quarters. The game featuring a 22-point Suns lead through three quarters was finito from there.
The effort was at long last meshing with the execution and that Suns defense we’ve all come to know returned to the series.
“We study film. Coach is coming in with the adjustments and we make ’em and we follow ’em,” Booker said. “We pride ourselves on the defensive end all year. I think that’s when we’re at our best. When we’re not taking the ball out of the hoop and playing a slower-paced game. We like getting stops, getting out in transition because we have a lot of athletes, a lot of people that can make plays for each other.”
That third-quarter typhoon finally got multiple Suns on the proper track, right when Dallas’ defense sent extra attention Booker’s way and he did as he always does, making the correct pass to set up his teammates in a favorable position from there.
Deandre Ayton was still goofing up his finishes a bit but started dominating the offensive glass and finding ways to get the ball sent his way inside. Mikal Bridges made Dallas star Luka Doncic feel him in a way he hadn’t all series, and through that, his scoring came along for the ride too.
“Just from the eye test and what I felt in the game, I thought he did a really good job of pressuring a bit more tonight,” Williams said of Bridges on Doncic. “We were much more physical against him.”
Off the bench, Williams made a huge change in sitting struggling backup point guard Cam Payne and playing his backcourt mate off the bench Landry Shamet in a pseudo floor general role. Shamet went on to play the best 19 minutes he has yet in a Suns jersey through excellent defense and confident on-ball play.
“Landry, in his minutes, he’s shown that he can guard and stay in front of the ball a lot better than most people think, so that helped him,” Williams said. “And his ability to handle the ball and initiate with Book allows him to be on the floor with Book.”
“Super aggressive and super confident and that’s exactly what we need out of him,” Booker added on Shamet.
The insertion of Bismack Biyombo for JaVale McGee was the second tweak. Biyombo and Cam Johnson were right there with the tremendous defensive effort in those second and third quarters.
Just like that, unlike segments of this postseason, the Suns had over half their rotation playing good basketball and suddenly Dallas was at a loss.
Phoenix shifted its defensive strategy to involve less help and dared the Mavericks to beat them through 1-on-1 play, similar to the start of the series. That worked to perfection, ruining the Mavericks’ assist number to only nine in the game and forcing 12 of Dallas’ 18 turnovers in that third quarter alone. It also kept the Mavericks at 8-for-32 (25%) 3-point shooting.
Williams saw “really good awareness to shooters” getting a hand up to contest and help defenders trusting the on-ball defender by holding their positions.
“We had a great deal of focus on the gameplan, personnel and rebounding was something, even if we didn’t come up with the board, I thought we had three, four guys in the paint scrapping for the rebound,” Williams said. “The defense tonight, that’s the backbone of our program, it’s one of our pillars. Being able to defend and the one [area] that was at a really high level tonight was being able to guard the ball in 1-on-1 situations.”
Doncic, Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie were more than happy to have a possession end with no one else touching the ball and the Suns’ resistance on that trio was much better on Tuesday, where the aforementioned Bridges, Johnson, Shamet and others stepped up. They were not touching the paint that often. It’s difficult to dribble-drive through bumps all series.
Ayton scored 20 points and Bridges added 14 with four steals while Johnson also had 14.
Doncic had only two assists to go with 28 points (10-for-23), 11 rebounds, three steals and four turnovers. Along with the Suns’ defensive strategy, Phoenix was targeting Doncic on the other end by putting him in situations where he had to make proper rotations, as The Athletic’s Mike Prada noted.
All of this took place during another below-average Chris Paul outing considering the high standard his play holds. Paul was 3-of-8 from the floor for seven points and 10 assists. It was a big-time improvement from his play in Dallas, as his playmaking put his fingerprints on the game most notably in the third quarter, but was still not the Paul we’ve come to expect.
We were back to the Mavericks’ formula from Games 1 and 2 of only one lone player provising a significant contribution to the scoring department. Brunson registered 21 points to go with Doncic’s 28 and Davis Bertans’ 10 made him the third and final Maverick in double figures.