Suns guard Devin Booker discusses his 70-point game against the Boston Celtics.
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Suns coach Earl Watson discusses his team’s shortage of players and how that is starting to weigh on them after Thursday’s loss to the Nets in Brooklyn. Doug Haller/azcentral sports
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Phoenix Suns center Alan Williams watches his mother, Jeri Williams, sworn in as Phoenix police chief in Chesapeake Energy Arena. (Paul Coro/azcentral sports)
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Hosted by head coach Earl Watson, who says the Suns “embrace and celebrate our youth.” Video: Phoenix Suns
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Devin Booker on his 70-point night
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BOSTON – An hour after Friday’s historic game, Devin Booker had wrapped his mind around the accomplishment, but maybe not the names.
In scoring a franchise-record 70 points in a 130-120 loss to the Boston Celtics, the second-year Suns guard had become the sixth player in NBA history to reach such a number, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, David Thompson, Elgin Baylor and David Robinson.
“It means a lot to be mentioned with those names,” said Booker, referring to those that are, one day soon once Bryant is eligible, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famers. “I’m going to keep working, stay humble and try to be mentioned with those names in another way, also.”
Chamberlain scored 70 or more six times, but not one came before his 25th birthday. Thompson scored 73 at age 23. Robinson put up 71 at 28. Booker is 20. Not old enough to legally drink alcohol. He still should be a junior in college, playing in this month’s NCAA Tournament.
Think about this: Booker scored 51 points in the second half alone. He put up 28 in the fourth quarter, tying his own franchise record. Overall, Booker made 21 of 40 from the field and 24 of 26 from the foul line. The second-half points, total field-goal attempts and made free throws all set franchise records. Booker’s 20 made free throws in the second half tied an NBA record for most in a half.
“This puts him in a different category,” Suns forward Jared Dudley said. “Not even just the NBA, now the world knows about Devin Booker.”
Sitting at his locker, veteran center Tyson Chandler considered what he had just witnessed at the TD Garden. The word that kept popping to mind was “legendary.” Does Booker have everything figured out? No. And to Chandler, that is what’s so impressive.
“God willing this kid stays healthy,” he said, “I think he’s going to be a Top 10 scorer of all time.”
How it happened
Entering Friday, Booker hadn’t shot well in nearly two weeks. Ankle soreness was partially to blame, but earlier on this six-game trip, the 6-foot-6 guard admitted: He just wasn’t hitting shots he normally makes.
“Shooters are going to shoot,” Booker said. “I always live by my motto of: ‘Shoot your next shot like you made your last one.’ ”
At Friday’s team breakfast, Booker realized he had to be aggressive against Boston, which ranked 11th in the NBA in defensive field-goal percentage. A bonus: The Celtics were without Avery Bradley, among the league’s top perimeter defenders, because of sickness. Booker saw an opportunity.
Over 45 minutes, he showed off his offensive versatility. Booker hit four 3-pointers and converted five 3-point plays, flexing his biceps after one. He banked in three jump shots, hit turnarounds and fade-aways.
He also got to the foul line.
A night earlier, during a 126-98 loss to Brooklyn, this had been an issue. Booker started strong that night, making 7 of 13 from the field, but then he got frustrated over a series of no calls and it affected his performance. He shot 2 of 13 the rest of the way.
After the loss, Suns coach Earl Watson had a message he wanted delivered. Just because the Suns have shut down key players, he told news reporters, it doesn’t mean the guys in uniform aren’t fighting.
“We need referees to understand that immediately,” Watson said, an edge to his voice. “It’s not what it seems. We have to execute the vision from above, but when we take the court, we compete and we play the right way. We’re not just out here trying to get the game over, so I think our players deserve fouls, too.”
Against Boston, Booker played point guard for significant stretches, running off high ball screens, which put him in attack mode.
“He’s pretty special at the point, a lot of people don’t realize that,” Watson said. “If you watched him play last year, when he goes to the point he can do a lot of things with the ball. It makes him more aggressive. Coming off high pick-and-rolls, initiating offense, it makes him a constant threat.”
Said Booker: “If you’re being super-aggressive off those pick-and-rolls, sometimes the only thing bigs can do is foul. Once I figured that out … the bigs kept reaching and I kept using that to my advantage, trying to get to the free-throw line. And it just went from there.”
Booker had 19 points at halftime. In the third quarter, he got rolling. With 1:59 left, he stole the ball and scored, breaking his career-high of 39 points, set three times this season. Watson asked Booker if he wanted to come out.
Replied Booker, according to the coach: “Are you crazy?”
The two have a special bond. Last season, before he was promoted to head coach, Watson – just two years out of the NBA – was Booker’s player-development coach. At times, the two battled 1-on-1. Watson considered them bonding sessions. Over time, he realized Booker had an “old-school mentality,” just like himself.
“He’s going to play through (injuries), so you kind of have to read him and really get him in an isolated situation for him to be honest with you because he wants to be on the court,” Watson said.
To start the fourth, Booker went nearly two-and-a-half minutes without scoring but then exploded for 10 points, giving him 52 with six minutes to go.
“When he had 40, we were telling him, ‘Go get 50, go get 50!” ” rookie forward Marquese Chriss said. “And then he got 50. And then 55, and 60 (tying Tom Chambers’ franchise record set 27 years ago) and he just kept going.”
Yes, Booker admitted, it felt strange celebrating after a loss. At the same time: “The way our season is going right now,” he said, “we’re kind of looking for something to celebrate.”
The Celtics didn’t see it that way. Maybe it was because Booker talks a lot of trash. He had words with Isaiah Thomas after he rejected the All-Star guard in transition. He exchanged words with forward Jae Crowder, who informed the Suns guard in the second half, mistakenly as it turned out, “You’re not getting 50.”
At some road stops this season, this has made Booker a villain of sorts. It’s a role he embraces.
“He was like that at Kentucky,” said point guard Tyler Ulis, who teamed with Booker in college. “We told the media about how we liked away games more because we liked the boos and we took that on and it made us play better. He doesn’t care who likes him on the court.”
In the final minute, with the game decided, Watson twice called time to set up plays and advance the ball. After the game, the Suns coach was asked about his motive for such a move.
“It was about letting our kids be great,” said Watson, adding that if the Celtics had a problem, all they had to do was stop Booker from scoring. Simple as that.
Or maybe not.
Said Thomas: “We’re worried about the playoffs, they’re worried about the (draft) lottery. But you got to tip your hat off to Devin Booker. Seventy points in a Pro-Am in some city is a lot of points. Seventy points in any league is a hell of a game. It’s just how they did it at the end of the game. It was different.”
As the Suns celebrated in the locker room, they posed for a group picture. Veteran guard Leandro Barbosa crouched in front. Point guard Eric Bledsoe stood on the right and in the back center Alex Len raised his arms, fingers pointed toward the ceiling. In the middle, Booker held a white sheet of paper with “70” written in marker, a nod to Chamberlain’s historic “100” photo.
The photo was posted to the NBA’s Instagram account. Not much later, in the comments section, Crowder wrote: “NEVER SEEN SO MANY GUYS HAPPY AFTER AN ‘L.’ “
Responded Booker: “you can’t guard me.”
Suns at Hornets
When: 10 a.m.
Where: Spectrum Center, Charlotte.
TV/radio: FSAZ/KTAR 98.7 FM.
Charlotte update: The Hornets (32-40) have won three of four and are trying to climb back into the Eastern Conference playoff race. Guard Kemba Walker (22.8 ppg) has 208 3-pointers, second most in team history. On March 2, the Suns beat Charlotte 120-103 in downtown Phoenix. The Hornets are 20-16 at home.