by Gina Mizell

Headline

Dynamic Duo
Backcourt tandem of Devin Booker and Chris Paul has reached historic heights during NBA Finals

MILWAUKEE — As Chris Paul soaked in the fervor of finally clinching his first trip to the NBA Finals, he thanked the Los Angeles Clippers organization and fans that he represented for six seasons. He praised Monty Williams, the coach he went on a playoff run with more than a decade ago and has reunited with in Phoenix. He pointed up to a Staples Center suite, to his family that had been with him through injuries and crushing losses, along with the best moments of his Hall-of-Fame career.

But when ESPN’s Rachel Nichols asked Paul why he wanted to join the Phoenix Suns, without hesitation, he pointed to his left and proclaimed, “that light-skinned dude over there, No. 1.” 

That dude was Devin Booker, the rising All-Star aiming to propel the Suns back to prominence. And Paul’s gut was correct about how pairing them together would unfold.

Booker and Paul have created a lethal backcourt tandem in their first season, culminating in this magical playoff run that now stands two victories away from their first NBA championship. The 36-year-old Paul looks like an ageless wonder, while the 24-year-old Booker looks to be revving up for a dominant prime. 

Entering Sunday’s Game 3 against the Bucks, Booker and Paul are coming off scoring the most points by a starting backcourt in the first two games of an NBA Finals in league history (113) — a feat that left Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer unable to come up with an appropriate comparison. 

“I'm having a hard enough time trying to figure out how to guard those two,” Budenholzer said matter-of-factly and with a hint of exasperation. “I can't come up with a good comparison for you." 

Booker and Paul are both ferocious competitors and basketball junkies, making them kindred spirits despite the 12-year age gap. They are both maestros in the pick and roll and in the lost art of the midrange jumper, consistently getting to their spots with the ball in their hands without it feeling too “your turn, my turn.” And they’ve both displayed a willingness to sacrifice personal scoring or shine, because winning is all that matters at this critical juncture of their respective careers.

It’s a partnership that is both surreal and splendid, and that has the Suns on the verge of reaching the NBA’s mountaintop.

“They’re the perfect fit. They’re the perfect storm,” said Melvin Booker, Devin’s father and a former professional basketball player. “They’re the same person. They’re so competitive. As they said, they’re both dogs.”

Booker can still mimic how the public-address announcer would yell a high-pitched “C-P-threeeee!” whenever Paul made a shot from beyond the arc with the New Orleans Hornets. 

A teenage Booker and his dad used to make the 110-mile trip from Moss Point, Mississippi to New Orleans to watch Paul and the closest NBA action. Booker became such a “fan boy” that he wore Paul’s shoes throughout his whole high-school career.  

“Somebody I’ve idolized for a very long time,” Booker said.

Booker eventually morphed into a one-and-done lottery prospect, the sixth man on a stacked Kentucky team. While Booker worked out ahead of the 2015 draft with close friends Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell in Los Angeles, Paul stopped by to train alongside them shortly after he and the Clippers were eliminated from the playoffs.

Paul immediately noticed through drills that Booker had a smooth shooting stroke. But when the session shifted to 1-on-1 work, Paul got a taste of Booker’s edge. After the workout, Paul told then-agent Leon Rose (now the New York Knicks’ president), “Man, he good. He nice. He can play.”

“He didn’t care what it was,” Paul said of Booker. “He was competing. One thing you get a chance to see in this league is that a lot of guys that are like that go a lot further than guys who are just skilled." 

Later that day, Paul invited Booker, Towns and Russell to his home to talk about NBA life on and off the court. How seriously Paul took his craft — including hiring a personal basketball trainer, chef and someone to work on his body — immediately resonated with Booker.

“He pulled up fresh off the season, and that meant a lot for us,” Booker recalled, “for a Hall of Fame guy, an All-Star guy to come in the gym and work with us guys (who) hadn’t proven anything in our careers yet. …”

“He was giving us the breakdown of the business of the game. This was all at a time before we were in the NBA, so to see somebody have it all the way together (when it came to) professionalism at the highest level (was helpful).”

But when Booker and Paul began matching up against each other as NBA opponents, in Paul’s words, “we (were) damn near about to fight a lot of times.” Booker concurs, saying, “I started talking (expletive) to him right away.” Booker has pulled up clips on an app that compiles all shots taken against an individual matchup, when taking Paul into the post every time he would switch onto Booker resulted in a healthy dose of chriping.

“He would be, like, ‘I'm not going for that. I'm not going for that today,’” Booker said. “ … I scored on him a couple times, and he stopped me a couple times.”

But after games, Booker and Paul would always chat. When Booker made his first All-Star team last season, cameras caught he and Paul sharing a warm greeting in the locker room. Paul, who watches games around the clock, could see Booker was a promising player who, because of team struggles and organizational instability during his first five NBA seasons, had not gotten the chance to showcase his abilities on a meaningful stage. 

“I knew that,” Paul said. “It ain’t about noticing that. … Like, we know each other, know each other.”

When rumors began swirling that the Suns might trade for Paul following their stunning 8-0 Orlando Bubble run to close the 2019-20 season, Devin and Melvin immediately thought “we got a really good chance” to have a special season. Booker and Paul went through an on-court workout in Phoenix together hours after the acquisition became official, squeezing the session in before Paul was due on set to shoot a round of State Farm commercials.

During a 3-on-3 drill the first day of training camp, Booker said he and Paul “got into it … I don't think (we were) really about the throw hands, but the closest thing you can do to that without doing it.” Yet Booker also immediately praised Paul’s leadership style that demanded focus but also built camaraderie with new and younger teammates.

“That drives me,” Booker said during training camp. “You can feel his presence in the gym. It’s not necessarily you’re out there to impress him. You just know the level of play that he’s played at, the level of intensity, the level of competitive spirit that he’s always performed at.

“I’ve never dealt with it first-hand and being next to him, but just watching him from afar … it definitely holds me to a higher standard every time I walk in here.”

The on-court fit between two ball-dominant guards was not seamless at first. The Suns began the season 8-8 and, around that time, Williams shared in a meeting that their starting unit had the worst plus/minus in the NBA.

Williams believes today that he tried to force what worked during the 2019-20 season with Booker and Ricky Rubio. The coach vowed to get out of the way and allow Booker and Paul to figure out how to complement each other and enhance their teammates.

They focused on details such as screening angles, ball and body movement and pace. Paul, who missed a chunk of the preseason, got more comfortable running the Suns’ sets. They reminded the group that defense would fuel their offense. They sacrificed their own potential shots to elevate the play of Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson.

“They see so many defenses and they don't force the issue,” Williams said. “That's the one thing I've noticed with those guys. Very rarely do they wave somebody out of their way, meaning their own teammate. They just make the next right play.”

The Suns’ offense steadily climbed into the top 10 and stayed there as the Suns posted the NBA's second best regular-season record at 51-21. Both players have been dangerously effective with the ball in their hands by deploying different styles. Booker is the crafty bucket-getter with a mix of “Point Book” distributing skills. Paul, meanwhile, is a clinical surgeon who manipulates the defense while rarely turning it over, and can get to his signature elbow jumper whenever he wants.

By midseason, Booker and Paul were both All-Stars. By July, Paul was a second-team All-NBA selection after averaging 16.4 points and 8.9 assists per game during the regular season, and Booker (25.6 points, 4.3 assists per game) a first-time Olympian.

They also give the Suns two knock-down clutch options. A prime example of the Booker-Paul tag-team occurred in the final seconds of a January game at Dallas, when Paul delivered a perfect bounce pass to Booker for a game-winning 3-pointer.

Meanwhile, Booker and Paul continued to build their off-court bond.

They live on the same Valley street, making it easy to get together to watch, rewind and dissect the nuances of games on any given night. Booker has observed the Paul’s diligent routine to take care of his body, calling it “inspiring.” He, Paul and Booker’s dog, Haven, regularly pile into the car to go to the 5G Performance Center for daily COVID-19 testing, or to go to Melvin’s house for chats that lasts hours.

Recent postgame news conferences have also given a rare public glimpse into their off-court dynamic. As Paul called Booker “the oldest 24-year-old I’ve ever met in my life” following Game 4 of the Clippers series, Booker slyly munched on sushi at the back of the room. When Paul spoke after the Suns won the West, Booker walked into the room unannounced, pulled up an extra chair and set the trophy next to Paul.

And Booker still has those moments when he reminds everybody around him, “That’s CP3!”

“There’s zero ego involved,” Booker said. “I think that’s the most important part. We both want to see each other succeed. We both want the team to succeed. We all want the team to succeed. So when you’re all on the same page in that way, the relationships tend happen.”

Added Paul: “That’s why I think this has worked — because there’s no ego from either one of us.”

On the night Booker dropped 47 points to help the Suns knock out the Lakers out in the playoffs’ first round, Melvin told the Pauls “you don’t understand how happy we as a family are to have the Paul family in Phoenix and on this team with us” while celebrating in their Staples Center suite. Paul was sensational in the close-out games against Denver (37 points) and the Clippers (41 points) — performances that sandwiched a Booker 40-point triple-double (the first of his career) in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

But the backcourt’s scoring punch has reached historic heights during the Finals.

In a 118-105 Game 1 victory, Paul scored 32 points on 12-of-19 shooting, while Booker collected 27 points including 10-of-10 from the free-throw line. Two days later, Booker buried seven 3-pointers as part of his 31 points, while Paul added 23 points.

With less than eight minutes to play in that 118-108 victory, Booker set a screen for Paul and, when P.J. Tucker left Booker to double Paul on the right wing, Booker got free at the top of the 3-point arc. Paul flipped the ball to Booker for the wide-open look to push Phoenix’s lead back up to 13 points.

It was the type of sequence Paul envisioned when he signed off on joining the Suns, that he shared with the world minutes after reaching the Finals together.

Now, this lethal backcourt tandem, these competitively kindred spirits, these midrange maestros who just want to win at this critical juncture of their careers, are on the cusp of propelling their team to an NBA championship.

“It’s kind of strange that just growing up literally being a fan boy of him and now (I’m) right next to him in the backcourt,” Booker said. “It’s just crazy how life comes full circle. I’m blessed to be in this position.”

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