PHOENIX — Devin Booker grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as a devoted Detroit Pistons fan. He keyed on Ben Wallace’s energy, Chauncey Billups’ steadiness, Rasheed Wallace’s tenacity and Tayshaun Prince’s versatility.
Most important, Booker devoured YouTube clips of Richard Hamilton, studiously trying to convert Hamilton’s picturesque shooting form to muscle memory.
The Pistons of Booker’s childhood claimed a championship in 2004 as a clock-in crew, a roster full of veterans who played team basketball and did not waver against a favored Los Angeles Lakers equipped with generational talents such as Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
Like those Pistons teams, Booker’s Phoenix Suns are founded on finding the open teammate in this year’s playoffs, and then trusting in him to make the shot. They spread the ball and stretch defenses, a strategy that has allowed their best options, but also role players such as Mikal Bridges, to star in the NBA finals against the Milwaukee Bucks.
“We have a saying with our team: It’s called ‘good to great,’” point guard Chris Paul said. “We pass up good shots to get great shots.”
These Suns also enjoy one definitive advantage over the Detroit teams of Booker’s youth: Those Pistons did not possess a scorer of Booker’s creative caliber.
“If Book shoots it, I expect it to go in,” Paul said. “I get mad at him when he don’t shoot.”
Booker scored 31 points in Game 2 of the finals Thursday night, propelling the Suns to a 118-108 victory. Leading two games to none as the series shifts to Milwaukee, Phoenix is as close to an NBA championship as it has ever been in its 53 years of existence.
On Thursday, Booker responded each time the Bucks — or more appropriately, Giannis Antetokounmpo — trimmed the Phoenix lead to within semistriking distance. Booker did not enjoy his most economical performance — he missed eight of his first 10 shots — but he made 10 of his final 15 while hunting for his shot from the right wing. He also had seven 3-pointers.
“The thing about Devin, he shoots the same way first quarter, fourth quarter — doesn’t matter; his shot looks the same,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “That’s a guy that’s put a ton of work in his shot, but the mentality, he’s calm in those moments. So we’re grateful for those contributions in those moments.”
Three of Booker’s 3-point shots arrived in devastating succession after Milwaukee narrowed a 15-point deficit to 90-84 early in the fourth quarter.
“Every time Book hit a 3 or do something, you could just tell it just melted them down,” said Bridges, who scored 27 points and pulled down seven rebounds in Game 2. “Like, ‘Dang, we was right there.’ And I’m amazed, too: I’m running in there trying to crash, maybe get an O board; it’s going in every single time.”
For a while, most of Booker’s shots did, providing the Suns with enough offense to blunt Antetokounmpo’s singular impact.
Antetokounmpo scored 20 of his game-high 42 points in the third quarter, joining Michael Jordan and two former Pistons— Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars — as the only players to score at least 20 points in a single quarter of a finals game. He finished 15 for 22 from the field and 11 for 18 from the free-throw line.
“I just tried to be aggressive,” said Antetokounmpo, who briefly experienced cramping in Game 2. “Miss or make, got to be aggressive. Got to leave everything on the court.”
Milwaukee finished with the league’s best regular-season record the previous two seasons only to then fizzle in the playoffs. The disappointments led to speculation that Antetokounmpo, a two-time MVP, would look elsewhere when he arrived at free agency after last season.