If you were looking for Phoenix Suns all-star Devin Booker in the final 12 minutes, 48 seconds of the Game 3 in the 2021 NBA Finals, you were not going to find him without turning your eyes from the action.
Booker grabbed a rebound with 1:59 left in the third period and fired a 3-point shot seven seconds later that did not connect. That was the Suns’ last chance as they went on to lose badly, and it pretty much was Booker’s final meaningful activity in the game, save for how much significance one invests in his walking toward the bench 70 seconds after that last shot attempt and remaining there as the final accounting was transacted on Bucks 120, Suns 100.
Suns coach Monty Williams made a point of talking directly with Booker before those final dozen minutes took place.
“Just talking to him about the game, the kind of force we have to play with, just normal stuff,” Williams told reporters. “This is one of those games that you typically, in NBA-speak, say, ‘Flush it.’ But you can’t, in the Finals. We’ve got to watch the film and learn and get back to playing our kind of basketball consistently.”
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Booker finished the game having played just 29 minutes, scored 10 points and shot 3-of-14 from the field. All three figures represented career playoff lows for Booker which, in his defense, only involves the 2021 season because the Suns hadn’t gotten to the postseason in his first five seasons. Also in his defense, Booker is just 24 years old. And, before the defense rests, remember that Booker is playing with a broken face.
That’s probably not the actual medical term, but if it was your face involved, that’s probably what you’d call it. He was injured in the third quarter of Game 2 in the Western Conference final series victory, when Clippers guard Patrick Beverley leaned in to defend Booker and inadvertently head-butted him. Booker fell to the court with his nose broken in three places and has struggled since to regain the form that has made him one of the league’s brightest young stars.
Booker wore a mast to protect against further injury, or pain, for several games but had ditched it by Game 6 against the Clips, and in the third quarter of that one he got slammed again in the nose when Paul George made a high move with the ball.
Not all the pain has been physical. In seven games since the injury, he has averaged 23 points and 36.4 percent shooting from the field. Obviously, the competition becomes more difficult and the pressure grows as the playoffs progress, but his numbers before getting busted in the face were 26.1 points and 43.8 percent shooting. He produced six games of 30 points or more in a dozen chances before the injury, only two in seven chances since.
“Their aggression, their defense, they keyed on him, he missed some shots. So that’s going to happen,” Williams said. “He’s been in this situation before. When you get to the Finals, it means you’ve been in a number of situations. This is nothing new to us, anymore.”
Except that it is, until Phoenix — now ahead in games 2-1 — either wins or loses the series. Everything is new until it isn’t. Every great player who gets to the Finals, every aspiring champion that makes it, goes in without ever having been there.
When Booker sat in Sunday’s final quarter, there was some discussion about what the reaction would have been had Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan been benched in a similar fashion. If Bryant and Jordan had been in a similar situation, though, remember a couple of things. Jordan would have been much more experienced. He was 27 in his first Finals, with 14 playoff series behind him to Booker’s three. And Bryant, though only 21 when he made his first Finals appearance, was by far the second-best player on his team through that championship and the two that immediately followed. Shaquille O’Neal averaged 38, 33 and 36 points in winning the first Finals series of the 21st century.
If one is compelled to compare Booker to two of the 15 greatest players in the game’s history, at least make it a fair fight. And remember only one of the three enters with his nose broken from a previous dustup.