There are great wins during the regular season and then there are wins that emulate playoff basketball.
So it should be no surprise that Phoenix Suns shooting guard Devin Booker had his best game of the season when the level of play was that high in a 120-111 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
“This what I’ve been waiting on. Playing competitive basketball night in and night out,” he said. “So it’s been five years of keeping my head down, staying locked in and seeing tunnel vision, trying to play the right way through it all for these moments right here. So I don’t wanna look back.”
Booker had 36 points in that way we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from him where it was a tough 36.
He’s now scored at least 30 points in three straight games, reaching his expected all-NBA form.
The 76ers came to Phoenix completely engaged for a 1 p.m. Saturday tip-off. The Suns were ready for it, trading shots until they eventually pulled away, shooting 61% from the field through strong offensive execution.
From the jump in the first quarter, Philadelphia did the best job as a team defending Booker that we’ve seen in quite some time. Booker started 2-of-7 from the field, being checked by Ben Simmons, one of the best defenders on the planet.
Booker was able to find some rhythm with Danny Green defending him to open the second quarter, and to steal a line from the man himself, he didn’t look back from there.
The All-Star two-guard made 12 of his final 16 shot attempts. Phoenix managed to be down only five through the first quarter, where the return of the Suns’ key reserves once again proved to be a decisive part of a Suns win.
The margins will decide games played at this level, and one of those was Philadelphia’s minutes of MVP candidate Joel Embiid against the Suns’ second unit. That’s where backup 5 Dario Saric was immense in his first game in over two months.
“Dario ain’t gonna back down to nobody, man,” Booker said.
Saric, who played with Embiid for two seasons, got the better of Embiid on both ends with the savvy of someone who has practiced against a guy countless times. The Croatian knew the angles of how to attack and defend Embiid. It might have been the biggest difference in the game.
“I know well maybe what he will do, where I can meet him on a spot and that kind of stuff,” Saric said.
Head coach Monty Williams called Saric “a warrior” and admitted you couldn’t have expected him to block Embiid’s shot.
Saric had that block plus 15 points, two rebounds, four assists and four steals. In 20 minutes, he was plus-18.
“Dario is one of the best guys to play with … We take a lot of what he does for granted. I know I do … He just so cerebral, makes the right plays and (is) a great teammate, man,” Chris Paul said.
Embiid got his, with 35 points and eight rebounds, but those were the segments in the game the 76ers were supposed to win and they did not. The momentum of that first bench shift in the second quarter lifted the Suns even higher to close with a tie ballgame at the end of the first half.
Booker and Paul assisted or scored on 20 of the Suns’ first 22 points in the third quarter. Booker had 16 of his 36 points in that third, including a stretch of scoring 12 straight Suns points. And then it was the bench again.
Saric especially bested Embiid in the second half. Their minutes against each other were even in the first half, a huge victory for the Suns, and Phoenix was plus-5 over the first 5:30 of the fourth quarter with Saric on Embiid before Deandre Ayton finished the game.
By then, Phoenix was up nine and that’s where it sure was nice for the Suns to have Paul and Booker performing at their best. The duo scored or assisted on 16 consecutive points over the last five minutes.
Booker’s 33-foot dagger to put Phoenix up 14 with 1:55 left was one of the icy variety.
It was not just Saric off the bench. The group as a whole had 49 points, including four from Cameron Payne in his return, 11 via E’Twaun Moore, nine out of Cam Johnson and eight more contributed by Jae Crowder.
“So nice, man. We’re deep. I feel like we’re 15-deep,” Booker said. “Everybody can play. Everybody’s ready to go.”
The Suns (16-9) can beat the NBA’s elite, like the 76ers (18-9), even with a few key players off if they’ve got other pieces ready to pick their teammates up. That was the case on Saturday with two of their four best players not playing well.
Ayton couldn’t really find a way to impact the game. In 27 minutes, he had 11 points and six rebounds.
And if something felt off watching the closing minutes, that was probably the lack of Mikal Bridges on the court. The ultra-reliable wing had a rare off-night, posting four points, two rebounds and an assist in 24 minutes. Williams went with Crowder and Johnson over Bridges and starter Frank Kaminsky to end the game.
While the team has played well with Kaminsky the past few games and it’s wise of Williams to not disrupt the flow, the team will get better contributions elsewhere, and Williams wasn’t afraid to pull back with more options. Kaminsky played only 11 minutes.
Paul added 18 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists.
The Suns have now won five straight games and eight of their last nine. In three of their last four, they’ve beaten the 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics. The Eastern Conference Finals will surely include at least one of those teams and maybe even both.
It’s the best stretch of basketball Phoenix has seen from its team in a decade. The high expectations for the Suns this year now being met and even exceeded shouldn’t let that slip past the mind.
If anyone isn’t going to let that happen, it’s the face of the franchise.
Booker missed a three-pointer when he was in the middle of his tear in the third quarter, and heading into the timeout, he yelled and took out some frustration on the basket near the bench. He knew the level of basketball being played, how every shot can matter.
He wants to thrive in it more than anyone. He did on Saturday, and he’s only going to get better at doing so.