“He fought through. With him being out so many games, and for him to come back and still be who he is, it’s tough but he held it down. Went out there and played like we know how he plays.” – Isaiah Canaan.
Devin Booker probably returned earlier than he should’ve from his strained left hamstring to be that leader and so much more for the Phoenix Suns.
“That’s all he was talking about was coming back and being ready to play,” Suns wing Josh Jackson said. “He’s still not 100 percent right now, but he wanted to play so bad, he came back and played anyways. It just shows how much of a competitor he is. How bad he wants to win and be out there with us.”
This is the latest of what has been an uneven start to the season for Booker, who hoped it’d be a special one for the team and himself.
Booker came back Friday night against Toronto after missing three games with the hamstring injury, scored 18 points, but the Suns (1-7) lost their seventh straight game, 107-98, to the Raptors.
This isn’t how Booker envisioned Phoenix starting the season, especially after that opening win against Dallas. He’s had to maintain a positive attitude, but sees signs of things turning in the right direction as Phoenix looks to end the losing skid Sunday against Memphis at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
“They’ve been playing well at the start of the season, but I think it’s a very winnable game for us,” said Booker, who didn’t play in Phoenix’s 21-point loss last month against the Grizzlies in Memphis.
Phoenix competed harder against the Raptors, made them earn the win — and Booker had a lot to do with that.
He’s tired of losing and probably returned too early to show that.
What we learned from the Phoenix Suns’ loss to the Toronto Raptors
“He wants to play,” Suns forward Richaun Holmes said. “He wants to be out there. He wants to lead us. He wants to put his best foot forward to help this team win. He definitely had some anxiety, wanting to get back, wanting to play. I think he performed well in his first game back and he’s going to continue to get better for us.”
Kokoskov called it a “game-time” decision in the Friday morning shootaround. Once upgraded from questionable to probable, Booker was almost certain to play.
Hours later, his smile on the court during pregame confirmed it.
Booker was back and ready to go.
He was hugging fans, signing autographs and taking pictures with them. He then started shooting the ball and making moves off the dribble before launching.
He hit one. And another. And another.
Oh yeah. He’s playing.
Booker finished with 18 points. He took 20 shots and misfired on five of his seven three-ball attempts, but didn’t further injure his hamstring.
“It felt good,” Booker said. “It felt really good. Obviously, I wouldn’t have played if it didn’t. Still feel a little something, but it’s something you have to play through. It felt fine out there.”
He battled through fatigue. Wasn’t in complete rhythm offensively, but Booker had a team-high six assists and took on the challenge of guarding one of the game’s best players: Kawhi Leonard.
It wasn’t Booker’s best, but Phoenix will gladly take whatever he can provide right now.
“Once he gets his wind back, I’m sure he’ll feel a lot better,” Canaan said. “Just glad to have him back out there. Another presence and a leader of the team. It’s always good to get your leader back.”
As gritty as Booker’s performance was, Kokoskov said he needs more from the franchise player.
“He’s got a lot of responsibility in his job description,” Kokoskov said.
Scorer. Playmaker. Solid defender. Leader.
That’s just the half of it — and he can’t do all those things on half a tank.
“Got to be in shape,” Kokoskov said. “Got to be in shape to play all those minutes because they’re coming, and we need a lot from him.”
This is all part of that uneven start that has prevented him and the Suns from playing at their best.
Booker came into the season having signed an $158-million extension. He put in the offseason work, saw the pieces Phoenix added, and drafted, and felt confident in saying it was time to make that jump after having the league’s worst record.
“I’m really excited,” Booker said back in September. “This is really a special year. I feel like we’re at that turning point.”
Eight games into the season, Phoenix has the worst record in the Western Conference.
That’s left Booker frustrated. The injury aspect of it has made it even worse because it has kept him from consistently playing at a high level.
Booker didn’t learn Kokoskov’s offense in training camp like his teammates because he couldn’t use his injured right shooting hand that required surgery Sept. 10. He had assistant coaches catching the ball for him in practice when running plays.
He got conditioning in, jolted Twitter by knocking down 3s with his left hand, but Booker couldn’t use camp to get in basketball shape. By not playing in the preseason, Booker missed out on developing on-court, in-game chemistry with new teammates like No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson.
All that didn’t seem to matter once Booker returned and scored those 19 fourth-quarter points in that opener, but that was against a team that is now 2-7 and lost six games in a row.
Booker still wasn’t in basketball shape — and Kokoskov had him running the point more and more.
The load got heavier. Phoenix dropped two straight in lopsided fashion at Denver and at defending NBA champion Golden State and returned home to face LeBron James and the Lakers.
The Lakers were winless, needed a win, but it felt like a perfect opportunity for Phoenix to turn the season around.
The Lakers not only took it to Phoenix on its home floor, but Booker strained that left hamstring on a drive in the third quarter.
The season which started with such promise had gone from bad to worse. The losing continued as they fell at Memphis, at City Oklahoma and got drummed by 30 at home by San Antonio.
Booker has watched, and rehabbed, and watched, rehabbed some more.
He started feeling better, but the unknown lingered. Booker had never experienced a hamstring injury like this, but he felt good enough to give it a go Friday.
He did. The Suns still lost, but they played their best game since the opener and did so with their best player not even being 100 percent.
Booker and his teammates can’t go back and change what’s happened, but with him back, they believe they have a chance to turn this season.
So does he. Booker wouldn’t have returned not being 100 percent if he didn’t.
Grizzlies at Suns
When: 6 p.m.
Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena
TV: FOX Sports Arizona
Outlook: Phoenix (1-7) lost its sixth straight game Friday night, 107-98, to Toronto at Talking Stick Resort Arena while Memphis (5-2) won its third straight, 110-100, at Utah. … Devin Booker scored 18 points against the Raptors in his return from missing three games with a hamstring injury while Isaiah Canaan scored 19 points in his return from an ankle injury suffered against at Oklahoma City last weekend. …. The Grizzlies beat Phoenix by 21 points at home last weekend as they had five players score in double figures. … Rookie 7-footer Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, posted his fifth double-double in eight games with 17 points and a career-high 18 boards against Toronto. He’s averaging 16.9 points and 11 rebounds this season. … Memphis will be the first opponent Phoenix has played for a second time this season as this the third of a five-game homestand for the Suns. They play Brooklyn on Tuesday and Boston on Thursday before returning to the road to face New Orleans and Oklahoma City.