A fired-up Booker landed, turned to see Antetokounmpo sliding into the seats along the baseline, shouted and flexed as he prepared to head to the free throw line to complete a three-point play. But the deafening cheers of the raucous Phoenix Suns crowd delayed Booker from reality. The hoop and the harm didn’t count. Officials had whistled P.J. Tucker for a loose-ball foul before Booker got hopping and mad, nullifying the moment.
If the Suns aren’t able to come back and win the next two games, that non-sequence from the first half of their eventual Game 5 loss will encapsulate what the Milwaukee Bucks have done to Booker’s remarkable postseason debut. So far, they’ve turned what should be a celebrated coming-out party for one of the league’s new, young stars into a footnote in the amazing Antetokounmpo diaries.
Booker is coming off back-to-back 40-point games in the Finals, an accomplishment that has only been matched by Jerry West, Rick Barry, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James and Antetokounmpo (in Games 2 and 3 of this series). But he’s the first player on that list to lose both games.
Booker also has found himself in the middle of the decisive moments. He tossed the lob to Deandre Ayton that Antetokounmpo turned into an improbable blocked dunk, and his fateful spin move to clear Tucker and Antetokounmpo ended horribly as Jrue Holiday stripped him, then tossed a gutsy lob that Antetokounmpo converted, despite being fouled … on the same rim where Booker had his dunk erased.
If at least one of those plays turns out a different way, Booker is approaching Game 6 in Milwaukee as a closeout opportunity, not his first playoff experience on the brink of elimination.
“Be better,” Booker said of what needs to be done, “as a whole collective group. We all know what's at stake and what's on the line. Everybody is going to have to give a little bit more because what we have done hasn't been enough.”
Booker already has obliterated Rick Barry’s 54-year-old record for points scored in a player’s first postseason, tallying 582 points with potentially two more games to boost his total. He also joins Barry and Dwyane Wade as the only players in NBA history to post multiple 40-point games in the Finals before turning 25. But those statistics are lost on Booker, who had to slog through five lottery seasons in Phoenix before getting the chance to prove he was built for these moments, not some sugar-rush, empty-calorie scorer who can’t win. He hears those numbers but only sees the losses.
“We didn't win those games, and that's the only objective there is out there,” Booker said.
Booker doesn’t have much visible ink on his body, but he does have “Be Legendary” tattooed on his right forearm in similar script as the late Kobe Bryant’s handwriting. Bryant relayed that message to Booker in his final season in 2016 and emerged as a mentor before his death last year. The two connected because they shared the same competitive mentality and appreciation for hitting difficult shots.
But their position — shooting guard — has lost prominence during an era when teams have pursued elite point guards or forwards to complete their championship pursuits. Booker is attempting to become the first shooting guard to be the best player on a title team since Bryant in 2010. He would join another exclusive list with West, Barry, Jordan, Wade and Bryant, should the Suns find a way to come back and win this series.
Booker’s accomplishments haven’t been eclipsed, but they have been overshadowed by a Bucks team that has ruined brilliant individual playoff performances all postseason. Kevin Durant, making his playoff return two years after tearing his Achilles’ tendon, had virtuoso game after virtuoso game in the second round, but he stepped his big foot on the three-point line at the most inopportune time and lost in Game 7.
Trae Young was doing his best East version of Booker, leading the Atlanta Hawks to the Eastern Conference finals for just the second time in the organization’s 53 years in the city. Young scored the third-most points for a player in his first postseason before slipping on a referee’s foot and injuring his ankle. He came back but lacked the explosion to keep his team going, despite Antetokounmpo missing the last two games of that series.
Booker has done his part and more, considering he has been playing with a broken nose — which briefly required him to wear a mask — since the conference finals. But his effort has bordered on doing too much, with the Bucks’ switching defense lulling him into cooking defenders in isolation and disrupting the Suns’ vaunted ball movement.
“It’s kind of hard to compare and contrast what LeBron did in the Finals in whatever year,” Booker said when asked if he had studied how other stars have responded in these situations. “We’re trying to figure it out right now, how we’re going to go out there and do it. We know it’s possible with the group that we have and what we have leaned on for most of the season.”
Chris Paul has been the sentimental story for much of this postseason — an all-time great point guard who had to wait until his 16th season to reach the NBA Finals and possibly embrace the Larry O’Brien trophy for the first time. He finished fifth in MVP voting for spearheading the turnaround in Phoenix, but Booker has led in his own way, taking on the scoring burden most nights.
After the Game 5 loss, Booker was asked how much it hurt that the Suns weren’t able to get the win for Paul. Booker frowned at the inquiry. Paul, who was seated next to Booker, raised his eyebrows with an annoyed look as well. Then Booker responded with an answer that was acceptable for both parties from the podium, “Next question, please.”
Booker isn’t seeking to win a title specifically for Paul. He’s in this for all of his teammates — but especially himself after all of the misery he has had to endure with the Suns.
“Just embrace it,” Booker said of the challenge. “Only basketball that I’ve been wanting to play for a really long time. So I’m having a lot of fun with it, competing at the highest level that basketball has known. This is a great experience.”