PHOENIX — Devin Booker grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., 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 like 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 like Mikal Bridges, to star in the N.B.A. 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 N.B.A. finals on 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 N.B.A. 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 semi-striking distance. Booker did not enjoy his most economical performance — he missed 8 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 Most Valuable Player Award winner, would look elsewhere when he arrived at free agency after last season.
Instead, the Bucks pledged to upgrade their roster and acquired the respected Jrue Holiday in a trade with the New Orleans Pelicans. In December 2020, Antetokounmpo agreed to a five-year contract extension, a significant commitment to a franchise that is hoping to win in its first N.B.A. championship since 1974.
The problem for the Bucks is that the issues that plagued Milwaukee in recent seasons are rebooting with a new cast.
Holiday and Khris Middleton, who both played superbly to close out the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference finals, are struggling to score in the finals. Middleton’s typical feathery shot is awry. Holiday, exerting energy each defensive possession in trying to stay attached to Paul or Booker, is only 11 for 35 from the floor in the first two games. He has made only one 3-pointer.
“I’ll continue to be aggressive,” Holiday said. “It’s the only thing I really can do is put pressure on the rim and try to spread out for 3s.”
The two games in Phoenix played out similarly, down to the final scores. Milwaukee’s secondary scorers have not alleviated any pressure from Antetokounmpo, who returned in Game 1 after hyperextending his left knee against Atlanta, an injury he originally feared would sideline him for a year.
The Bucks’ best scoring opportunities arrived only when Antetokounmpo could gain entrance into the post and was able to pivot and spin, utilizing his length for dunks and layups.
“I know he’s going to be there when we need him the most, and I don’t worry about it,” Antetokounmpo said of Holiday. “He’s a great basketball player.”
The 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers were the most recent of the four N.B.A. teams that recovered after losing the first two games of the finals. But Milwaukee has done it already in this postseason.
The Bucks rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals, but only after Brooklyn lost Kyrie Irving to an ankle injury and Kevin Durant’s Game 7 heroics fell a toe-on-the-line short.
This challenge requires more than just Antetokounmpo’s production against a cohesive Suns squad. Phoenix ended the first half whipping the ball around the court, while Milwaukee’s defense feverishly rotated. The Suns’ 10th pass of the possession resulted in Bridges feeding a pass to Deandre Ayton, who converted a layup while being fouled by P.J. Tucker.
“That’s just who we are,” Williams said.
Booker has known the benefits of team harmony since enjoying those Pistons teams as a child. As the breakout star of the playoffs, his shots generate amazement, but they are fueled by the attention Paul generates, by Bridges spreading the court and cutting at opportune times, by Ayton forcefully setting picks.
“It’s one through five,” Booker said. “Setting my man up, Deandre hitting a screen, Chris causing enough attention to get me open. So, it’s all the collective group. It’s team basketball, and that’s why I feel like we have been successful for most of the year.”
They are also only two wins shy of an N.B.A. championship, a position few expected Booker to be in, just like his favorite team all those years ago.