Phoenix Suns

Devin Booker's remarkable playoff debut will leave a hunger to get back to the Finals stage

"Damn."

As the confetti fell at the FiservForum, the camera caught Phoenix Suns superstar Devin Booker taking in the moment, watching the Milwaukee Bucks celebrate their first NBA championship in 50 years.

After going up 2-0 through the first two games of the NBA Finals, he had to have felt like they were so close to the first title in franchise history that he could picture it vividly in his dreams.

Losing four consecutive games to let those championship hopes slip away has to sting in a particular way.

"I haven't felt a hurt like this in my life," Booker told the media after the season-ending loss.

As a 24-year-old, you would think it would be safe to assume he'll get back to that Finals stage. But not everyone is as fortunate as LeBron James to make a run to the Finals eight years in a row.

Charles Barkley got there at the age of 29, played seven more seasons and never made it back. Shawn Kemp got there at 26, played seven more seasons and never made it back. James Harden and Russell Westbrook both got there at 22 and 23, respectively, and are still in pursuit of their first return to the big stage.

All of that to say: it's not an easy feat and it's rarely a foregone conclusion, even for a team as young and talented as the Suns.

Booker knows that, though.

After missing the playoffs in the first five seasons of his career, he was ready to step up and prove himself with his first opportunity in the bright spotlight of the NBA Playoffs.

And what a coming-out party he had.

Starting with a bang, going for 34 points, eight assists and seven boards to strike first against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, you could feel there was something special in the making. He confirmed that notion five games later when he dropped 47 points and 11 rebounds to close out the series, handing LeBron the first-ever first-round exit of his illustrious career. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it was the second-most points all-time in a series-clinching game against a defending NBA champion.

That's pretty specific, but also pretty relevant.

And he was far from finished.

Booker posted an impressive 34 points and 11 rebounds to help complete a clean sweep of MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets in the Conference Semifinals. In Phoenix's week-long layoff between the end of that series and the start of the Conference Finals, All-Star guard Chris Paul entered the league's health and safety protocols and was forced to miss the first two games against the LA Clippers.

How could the Suns beat the Clippers (and a healthy Kawhi Leonard, at the time) without CP3? Booker made sure it would happen.

The rising star put together the best performance of his career, going for his first-ever triple-double in his first-ever Conference Finals game with 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists in a win to give his team some life even without their leader.

Phoenix went on to win the series in six games, and in its first postseason appearance in a decade, it advanced to the NBA Finals for just the second time in franchise history.

There, Booker continued to write his name in the history books.

When he went for 42 points in Game 4 and 40 points in Game 5, he joined the elite company of Jerry West, Rick Barry, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo (who achieved the feat in Games 2 and 3) as the only players in Finals history to have back-to-back 40-point games.

Booker finished the playoffs with a whopping total of 601 points, surpassing Barry's previous record (521 points in 1967) for the most points in a debut postseason in NBA history. The 24-year-old guard may have just been on his way to a Finals MVP award, too, if the Suns could've pulled off a comeback down 3-2.

Instead, he and his team were left with a learning experience.

"Experience is the best teacher," he stated after the loss. "... This is what you go into the summer with and you take it and use it as fuel."

From there, Booker didn't have much time to soak in what he just went through, as the bucket-getter had to immediately jump on a jet to Tokyo to compete for Team USA at the Olympics.

They say Basketball Never Stops, and Booker experienced that first-hand, playing a key role in helping the United States achieve their fourth-consecutive Olympic gold medal. His best game came when his country needed him most, going for 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field in the Semi-Finals against Australia, using a third-quarter outburst to propel his team to the gold medal match.

The Olympics ended in the first week of August, only giving Booker just over a month to rest before it was back to work, heading to training camp for the 2021-22 season, where his Suns will try and repeat as champions of the Western Conference, aiming to get back to that ever-elusive NBA Finals stage.

Whether or not Phoenix can make that happen, one thing is for certain after his playoff run and summer of 2021: Booker is a bonafide star and the best is yet to come from the 24-year-old.

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