When Trevor Booker collected a steal late in the first quarter of Tuesday’s Game 5 victory against the Chicago Bulls, the thought of passing the ball never entered his mind. Instead, Booker saw an opening, one that sent him rumbling downcourt, smoothly dribbling coast to coast for a strong transition layup.
Moments like that are what Booker’s teammates envisioned when they admonished him during practices in early April, at times stopping play to spur the fourth-year forward toward the type of confident performances that proved invaluable in the Washington Wizards’ defeat of the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs.
“The thing you can’t coach with ‘Book’ is he has that motor,” Wizards forward Al Harrington said. “[He] makes the plays that don’t show up in the stat sheet. . . . Without him, I don’t know where we would be. He’s been that big a part of our team.”
Despite being one of the Wizards’ longest-tenured players, Booker didn’t have a clear role entering the season. After starting the first three games, he didn’t play in eight of the next 14, leaving his confidence shaky and minutes in flux as Coach Randy Wittman worked to find the right mix of players following a 2-7 start.
It wasn’t until Nene went down with a knee injury in February that Booker was handed both a spot in the starting lineup and an opportunity to showcase the potential that made him a first-round draft pick in 2010.
Though Booker showed signs of progress, his passive approach on offense often frustrated his teammates until it boiled over following a 96-78 loss to the Bulls on April 5.
“We had two practices on those days,” Booker said recently. “They seen the way I was scoring the ball in practice. They told me, ‘Just do it in the game.’ My confidence was a little low before that, but those two practices helped me out a lot.”
Even with Nene returning to the lineup, Booker’s elevated poise was obvious as he averaged 13.8 points in the final five regular season games.
In the playoffs, with Chicago boasting a high-energy reserve forward in Taj Gibson, Booker was often called upon to match his intensity with hustle plays and a physical presence off the bench.
And with Nene suspended for Game 4, Booker stepped back into a starting role to record eight points and nine rebounds and serve as a steadying force in the paint.
“To step it up in the playoffs and provide a type of energy and physicality he brought to the game, we needed that against the Bulls,” Wizards forward Drew Gooden said. “And I think Trevor has been doing a phenomenal job all season of playing that role.”
While Nene’s midrange jumper helped pull Chicago’s post players out of the paint and stretch the floor, Booker’s impact showed up on both ends of the floor. Not only did the Wizards outscore the Bulls by 3.8 points when Booker was in the lineup, but the 6-foot-8 forward recorded a team-high 14.8 percent of Washington’s offensive rebounds during the series.
Booker’s relentless hustle, which led to several second-chance opportunities in Tuesday’s grind-it-out win against Chicago to close out the series, led TNT analyst Steve Kerr to label Booker as “my new favorite player in the entire league” during the Game 5 telecast.
Indeed, like the Wizards’, Booker’s bandwagon has gained quite a few followers thanks to his play in the first round. And even with Washington’s second-round opponent still uncertain as the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks enter Saturday’s Game 7, Booker knows his continued strong play is critical should the Wizards hope to experience more postseason success.
“You’ve got to be prepared at all times. You never know when somebody is going to go down or you have to just step up in someone’s place,” Booker said. “I just stay ready and try to bring the energy no matter what role they want. I feel confident doing a little bit of everything.”