UPDATE: APRIL 26, 2023 AT 1:12 AM
PHOENIX — The best parties never start on time. This one was no different.
This lasted 16 years.
For the first time since May 2007, the Suns won a playoff series in Phoenix. They went nuclear in the third period of a closing game, going from nonchalant crew to deadly weapon. They scored 50 points and nearly blew the roof off the Footprint Center.
Then they nearly ruined the game, almost squandering a 20-point lead.
Yes, strange party.
But when it was over, the Suns had managed to put an injured opponent in their rearview mirror. They picked up their 12th win with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker sharing a basketball court.
Twelve more, and they’re NBA champions.
“Just competing at the highest level,” Booker said. “Iron sharpens iron.”
As usual, this game was mostly about Booker, the catalyst, the killer, and a rising superstar atone for his inglorious exit from the playoffs last year. He had 25 points in the third quarter, personally outscoring the Clippers. He finished with a staggering stat line: 47 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds.
“It was witty,” Durant said of Booker’s display.
There are obvious issues with the Suns. Their defense can be atrocious and their rebounding isn’t much better. They allowed the Clippers to score 40 points in the second quarter with their two superstars in street clothes. Phoenix’s bench is thin and his loyalty to Landry Shamet is perplexing. His most important players are still registering dangerous minutes.
But Booker will not be denied. He plays at an altitude where most players can’t breathe or function properly. That will surely come in handy in a second-round series against the top-seeded Nuggets.
“He practiced and waited for moments like this,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “I’m just glad to have him by my side.”
Meanwhile, Durant added 31 points on Tuesday, continuing the historic production of both Suns superstars.
“I just think the ability to put the ball in the hole in certain environments (sets them apart),” Williams said. “Once you hit games 3, 4, and 5 of any series, your play calls won’t be as effective. When you can throw the ball to two guys, and sometimes three guys, who can fetch a bucket, that’s playoff basketball.
Although Durant has been a playoff player for a while, there are a lot of different things about Booker. He is now an elite defender. He’s in superb physical condition, looking nothing like the player who arrived in Phoenix eight years ago. He has the experience to read the game at its highest level, and the explosiveness to get where he wants to go on a basketball court. And there is another notable development:
At the end of a Game 1 loss, Booker was pinned at the edge by Russell Westbrook. As he began to complain to the official, Westbrook tossed the ball to unsuspecting Booker, earning the win. This may have been a watershed moment in the player and franchise arc.
A few days later, Booker admitted that he and Chris Paul needed to hold each other accountable and stop focusing on officiating. That would be an understatement. And while Booker received a technical foul on Tuesday, there was a marked improvement in his temperament and playoff focus.
He no longer chases mistakes, grimacing at each drive, throwing himself to the ground after jump shots. In the process, he now crosses the final boundary.
If Booker develops this level of control and emotional maturity, a parade can’t be so far behind. And that celebration will be very different from the party the Suns threw on Tuesday.
Contact Bickley at email@example.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Arizona’s sports station 98.7 FM.