What Should We Make of Devin Booker's 70 Point Game?Wilt Chamberlain. Kobe Bryant. David Thompson. Elgin Baylor. David Robinson.
I am sorry but I just cannot do it--I cannot put Booker's name in the same paragraph with Chamberlain, Bryant, Thompson, Baylor and Robinson, even if Booker recently joined those all-time greats as the only players in pro basketball history to score at least 70 points in a game.
Chamberlain, Bryant and Baylor are Pantheon players. Robinson is a Hall of Famer and was selected in 1996 as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players. Hall of Famer Thompson was blessed with comparable talent but his career short-circuited due to drug abuse and injuries.
Booker is a second year pro who had never even scored 40 points in an NBA game prior to Friday. He is averaging 21.6 ppg, 3.2 apg and 3.2 rpg this season while shooting .423 from the field (including .364 from three point range) and .838 from the free throw line. Booker's Suns are "battling" with the L.A. Lakers to post the worst record in the Western Conference. TNT's Kenny Smith often calls high scoring players for losing teams "looters in a riot," because it is relatively easy to put up numbers in garbage time for bad squads.
Booker dropped 70 points on the Boston Celtics last Friday night, shooting 21-40 from the field (including 4-11 from three point range) and 24-26 from the free throw line. Booker's Suns lost 130-120 and the game was not even as close as that score suggests. The Suns repeatedly committed fouls down the stretch in order to create extra possessions for Booker.
Is Booker a future All-Star/All-NBA player or is he just a very good scorer for a very bad team who put up a lot of points in a loss?
Fouling to get the ball back so a player can reach a statistical milestone is not unheard of but it is not usually quite as blatant or sustained as it was in Booker's game. There is no footage of Chamberlain's record-setting 100 point game but reports suggest that only after the opposing Knicks started fouling Chamberlain's teammates to prevent Chamberlain from scoring did Chamberlain's teammates start fouling to get the ball back for Chamberlain. Chamberlain's Philadelphia Warriors won, 169-147. Chamberlain had already scored at least 70 points in a game twice and he would go on to post three more 70 point games; his point total was well into the 80s before the fouling shenanigans took place.
Bryant is the only player other than Chamberlain to break the 80 point barrier, scoring 81 points to lead his L.A. Lakers back from a 71-53 deficit to a 122-104 win over the Toronto Raptors. There were no fouling shenanigans during Bryant's performance--nor were there any fouling shenanigans when Bryant outscored the Dallas Mavericks 62-61 in three quarters before sitting out the fourth quarter or when he hit Memphis with 56 points in three quarters before sitting out the fourth quarter; there is no doubt that Bryant could have scored 70 or 80 points in both of those games, even without fouling shenanigans, if he had elected to play in those fourth quarters.
Robinson and Thompson posted their 70 point games in the last game of the season while chasing the scoring title in 1994 and 1978 respectively; Robinson edged Shaquille O'Neal but Thompson lost out to George Gervin, who played later that same day and scored 63 points, five more than he needed to take the scoring crown from Thompson. I am not aware of any fouling shenanigans in Thompson's 73 point game. Robinson's Spurs were up by a large margin late in the game when his Coach John Lucas instructed his player to intentionally foul to create more possessions for Robinson; those shenanigans added seven points to Robinson's total, enabling him to finish with 71. Brian Hill, who coached O'Neal's Orlando Magic at that time, called Lucas' stunt "a mockery of the game."
Perhaps the most blatant--and least talked about--fouling shenanigans took place in Larry Bird's career-high 60 point game; Bird was determined to break Kevin McHale's franchise single game record of 56 points (set just a few days earlier), so the Celtics repeatedly committed fouls in the waning moments of a blowout win against the Atlanta Hawks to enable Bird to boost his total from low 50s to 60 on the dot.
Booker is without question less heralded at the time of his 70 point game than any other player; the other five 70 point scorers were clearly on their way to Hall of Fame careers when they scored at least 70 points in a game, while it is not clear that Booker will even have another 40 or 50 point game.
In the aftermath of his big outing, Booker has said that Bryant inspired him to set no limits on his game and on what he can achieve. Bryant has praised Booker and has spoken about how last season Booker eagerly soaked up tips from him the way that Bryant once did from Michael Jordan.
I don't know what to make of Booker's performance or how to place it in proper context--and I have never been a fan of fouling shenanigans just to help a player reach a certain point total--but I am glad that Booker appears to be an earnest student of the game who respects and appreciates Bryant's work ethic and skill set.
posted by David Friedman @ 11:18 PM