Devin Booker was, in his words, “locked in” heading into Game Seven of the Western Conference Semifinals. From the outside looking in, the Suns’ leading scorer wasn’t just speaking out of bravado; in the 2021 National Bas-ketball Association Playoffs, he torched the Lakers with a 47-point masterpiece that announced his readiness for the big stage. And it wasn’t simply because of his familiarity with pressure; he was also slated to suit up at the Footprint Center, where a highly partisan crowd awaited to prove why the purple and orange had the best home record in the regular season.
As things turned out, the biggest name on the marquee did show up for battle. The problem was that he didn’t play for the Suns. Indeed, three-time All-Star Luka Dončić was prolific from the get-go, setting the stage for a blowout that effectively ended the rubber match at the half. In fact, so dominant was he that he managed to equal the collective point total of the opposition. Meanwhile, the supposedly ready-for-prime-time Booker had zero — as embarrassing an effort as any in the history of pro hoops.
To be sure, Booker wasn’t alone in ignominy. In producing only 27 points to go down 30 after two quarters, the Suns likewise got nothing from their other members of the Big Three. He, future Hall of Famer Chris Paul, and 2018 first overall pick Deandre Ayton combined to shoot one of 15 from the field. And the break didn’t do any good; the lead actually ballooned to 46 midway through the final period.
Which is to say the Suns, shepherded by back-to-back Coach of the Year awardee Monty Williams, didn’t just fail. They failed spectacularly, and against competition that wasn’t given much of a chance against them. Just like in the 2021 Finals against the Bucks, they went two and zero after two outings in the best-of-seven affair. And just like in the 2021 Finals against the Bucks, they then managed to snatch defeat from the throes of victory. This time around, they bowed four times over the next five contests, and in those four, the margin of defeat was a combined 79 markers.
For the Suns, the good news is that Paul wants to give the championship another shot. Even as he turned 37 earlier this month, he just came off a campaign in which he led the league in assists. It likewise bears noting that his leadership on and off the court have become integral to success in the valley. The bad news is his increasing lack of mobility and susceptibility to ailments; he was limited to 65 games in the regular season, and not for nothing did he play Game Seven with a left quadriceps injury.
And then there is the future of Ayton, whose contract the Suns refused to extend last year, and whom Williams kept off the floor for long stretches of Game Seven. He’s going to be expensive to retain, if at all. That said, they do have more than enough to contend anew. With another disappointing season imparting valuable lessons, they’re in prime position to keep contending — if they’ve learned enough, that is, to reach for the stars with their feet on the ground.
ANTHONY L. CUAYCONG has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.