Devin Booker starts his ‘new phase’ in style as Suns top Warriors in opener

SAN FRANCISCO — The season-opening festivities here Tuesday night were impressive, showcasing the excitement that Golden State basketball has become. As the PA announcer introduced the Warriors, each player stopped in front of a video screen that showed his name, then walked to mid-court as fire shot out of each basketball structure.

On the Phoenix Suns’ end, immune to the hoopla, Devin Booker shot left-handed layups, by himself, a finger roll, a scoop shot, his way of passing time before tip-off. He says the start of a new season makes him anxious. This must be a good thing.

Booker’s confidence is an old story. Already this season, he has smirked at reporters who suggested he finally had arrived (Booker said he arrived in 1996, the year he was born) and that he had blossomed into a two-way player (Booker said anyone noticing this just now hasn’t been paying attention).

Even so, Booker was the difference Tuesday night.  The storylines for this contest were numerous. Chris Paul’s first game with Golden State, and against his former team, nonetheless. Frank Vogel’s first game as Suns coach. Kevin Durant’s return to a city where he helped win two championships. To emerge as the headliner was not easy.

Booker did it anyway. And in some ways, this has become habit, stealing scenes on the basketball court has become a Booker trademark. He started with his shot-making Tuesday, scoring off the bounce and from the perimeter. He finished with his playmaking, answering a key preseason concern in leading the Suns to a 108-104 opening win over the Warriors at Chase Center.

“It’s a good start to a new phase of his career, where he’s going to be the primary ball-handler,” Vogel said. “He’s really embraced taking the leadership role on this team, playing a more traditional point guard where he’s a threat to go into kill mode at any point. And he has the savvy of reading defenses and picking them apart with the pass, which was the beauty of this game.”

Overall, this wasn’t pretty. It looked like two teams playing their first games, both trying out new parts, shaking off offseason rust. Phoenix played without star guard Bradley Beal, out with back tightness. Golden State played without Draymond Green, out with a sore left ankle. Both teams built leads but couldn’t hold them. It came down to Booker with the ball in his hands, looking to attack.

Since the Suns don’t have an experienced, pure point guard, this was a popular offseason topic. Not so much if Booker can do it; he’s shown he can at a high level. Rather, it was more about the workload and whether it made sense to put that on him. (Asked recently about this, Durant didn’t understand what the big deal was. “How long has Book been in the league, nine years?” he said. “I want to say by his third year he was already handling the ball, being asked to do a lot on the ball on top, dealing with guys double-teaming him, so he has a lot of experience. Now it’s just second nature.”)

It’s still gone somewhat unnoticed. Yuta Watanabe, starting his sixth NBA season, was asked Tuesday if he’s learned anything about Booker since becoming his teammate in July. Answered Watanabe: “He’s a great teammate, great guy — and that he’s a great playmaker.”

(Asked the same question, Vogel said he has noticed Paul’s influence on Booker. The two guards played together for three years before the Suns traded Paul over the offseason. “When you’re competing against him, you know what his skill set is and how difficult he is to stop, but the IQ piece and how much he loves to be out there playing are the things you don’t see,” Vogel said.)

With the Suns leading 100-99 with 1:09 left, Booker came off a screen and drew a help defender. In a flash, Booker leaped and fired a pass to Josh Okogie on the wing. Okogie last season had struggled with his shooting touch in the playoffs, missing 12 of 14 from 3-point range. This time he nailed it. He was Phoenix’s second-best player against Golden State, finishing with 17 points and 5 rebounds while also guarding Stephen Curry.

“That’s the kind of player he is,” Okogie said of Booker. “He trusts his teammates and he gives us all the confidence in the world to go out there and shoot and make plays.”

After Curry made two foul shots, Booker found Eric Gordon for a 3. On Phoenix’s next possession, he drew a double team and passed off to Jusuf Nurkić for a bucket that sealed Phoenix’s win.

Booker finished with 32 points and 8 assists, shooting 13 of 21 from the field. He attacked coming off ball screens, getting to the rim. He scored in the halfcourt and in transition.

“Incredible,” said Durant, who added 18 points and 11 rebounds. “He started off flaming hot, 15 points in the first quarter, and got us going. He just kept us there the whole night. We’re going to need that from him all season. Running the offense, making the great plays late.”

Booker said he was “tired as hell.” A sore left toe had limited him in practice, affecting his conditioning. He fought through it. With the game on the line, he was aggressive as always, but he relied on his reads. On the passes to Okogie and Nurkić, Booker said he had left his feet with intentions to shoot. The defense forced him to dish.

“Credit those guys for being in the right spot,” he said.

It’s one game. Too early to develop storylines or even identify concerns. Beal will add a different element for the Suns once he returns (Vogel said Thursday against the Lakers is possible.) With an overhauled roster, it likely will take the Suns a few weeks to figure out what they have. Booker gives them a head start.

“We don’t know each other,” he said of the team’s chemistry. “We had a training camp, a few preseason games. We really haven’t been tested and put in situations. That’s the beauty of a long NBA season. You get to use these games to prepare and get ready for when it counts.”


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(Photo: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

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