Playoffs 2021

Devin Booker: Phoenix Suns star guard is rising to the occasion in first-ever playoff series

It has been four seasons since Devin Booker's notorious 70-point game.

The then-20-year-old set the basketball world ablaze by scoring the most points in a game since Kobe Bryant's 81-point performance back in 2006, but with Booker's efforts coming in a loss, criticism still rained down on the emerging star's big day.

The same conversations we've heard surrounding other elite scorers were beginning to sprout up on Booker: the talent was undeniable, but could it contribute to winning basketball?

When Booker was drafted by the Phoenix Suns, they had already missed the playoffs in five consecutive seasons. They would go on to win fewer than 25 games in each of his first three seasons in the NBA, followed by a pitiful 19 wins in 2018-19 after selecting Deandre Ayton with the No. 1 overall pick.

Were Booker and Ayton going to be the tandem to take the Suns back to the playoffs? The potential was there, but the wins weren't. When the NBA was forced to hit pause because of the coronavirus pandemic in 2019-20, and rumours began swirling about how the league would approach a bubble to finish the season, it quickly became clear that the Suns would have to win all of their "Seeding Games" in order to even have a chance at cracking their first postseason in nine years.

Behind an impressive stretch of games from Booker, including one clutch game-winner to keep the season alive, Phoenix achieved a perfect 8-0 record, but would still miss the Play-In Game because of a tiebreaker.

The result came up just short of the goal, but the groundwork was laid for a team that had winning in its future. Trading for Chris Paul among other key offseason moves like the signing of Jae Crowder, the Suns were positioned to snap their 10-year playoff drought, and they did just that. But as a No. 2 seed, Phoenix was set to take on arguably the toughest first-round matchup in NBA Playoff history against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron James.

Booker hasn't shied away from the moment, though. Even if it is his first-ever playoff appearance.

When Paul went down with a shoulder injury in the first quarter of Game 1, it was the 24-year-old superstar who would answer the call during his leader's moments of absence, finishing for 34 points, eight assists and seven rebounds to take a 1-0 series lead over the Lakers.

It was a playoff debut to remember, but LeBron is no stranger to a 1-0 deficit in a playoff series, so there was still more work to be done.

Booker would follow that performance with a 31-point outing in a loss in Game 2, before his first sign of playoff struggles in another loss in Game 3. The Suns would get the job done in Game 4 to even the series at two games apiece, leaving Game 5 as the biggest contest of Booker's career to this point.

And to hardly any surprise, the prolific scoring guard stepped up to the challenge, setting the tone early for what would become a blowout victory to place his team one win away from eliminating the defending champs.

Booker exploded in the first quarter, going for 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting from the field and 2-for-2 from beyond the arc. That offensive outburst put the Lakers behind the 8-ball and they wouldn't have enough firepower to counter that attack. His 22 first-half points would help the Suns build a 30-point lead, one they wouldn't come close to surrendering.

Booker would finish the game with 30 points, seven rebounds and five assists - his third 30-point game of the series and his fourth game with at least five assists.

"There's nobody that's scared of the moment," Booker said after the game. "We're a confident team.

"In studying film, I think I passed up a lot of quick ones (earlier in the series)," he continued. "I just wanted to be aggressive."

His aggressive approach led the Suns to handing LeBron consecutive losses in a first-round series for the first time in his career. It also marks the first time in LeBron's illustrious career that his team has fallen behind 3-2 in a first-round series, while his perfect 14-0 record in the first round is also on the line.

The way that Booker has elevated his play in his playoff debut is to be commended, and the whispers of his talent not contributing to winning basketball have fallen to the background.

But there is still one more win to be had to advance to the next round and 12 more wins to achieve the team's ultimate goal.

It will be must-see-TV to watch Booker continue to rise to the occasion to keep the aspirations alive for the first championship in Suns franchise history.

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