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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

What Should We Make of Devin Booker's 70 Point Game?

Wilt Chamberlain. Kobe Bryant. David Thompson. Elgin Baylor. David Robinson.

Devin Booker.

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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:18 PM



At Wednesday, March 29, 2017 12:24:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

*quietly weeping in purple and orange*

At Wednesday, March 29, 2017 12:58:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

I told a friend this the morning after Booker dropped 70:

"Devin Booker scoring 70 points as a 20 year old means it's easier to score than ever in the NBA today. A great performance, just the sixth guy in NBA history to hit 70 or more,but also quite damning."

At Wednesday, March 29, 2017 6:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, that is my point: this is a great performance but it is hard to know what to make of it. As I mentioned in the article, there were shenanigans in several of the other big-time scoring performances--but it does seem like it is easier to score in today's game due to changes in rules, coaching philosophies and attitudes (such as players preferring to be "out of the poster" as opposed to challenging a scorer at the risk of being dunked on).

At Wednesday, March 29, 2017 8:42:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

While I agree that it's easier to score in general now (more space on the floor, fewer guys who care about defense, hand check rule, etc.) I don't really think this is a game you can learn much from or draw any conclusions from.

The result was never in doubt and Watson was coaching for stats (which you almost never see). If any other coach had their best player farming stats in a similarly non-competitive game, 70 would be pretty doable, but that basically never happens, because most coached, you know, would like to win and/or develop their entire team, not just one guy (who needs to work on defense a lot more than he needs to work on shooting free throws, anyhow).


I hate my team.

At Wednesday, March 29, 2017 11:39:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

If only the Suns had gotten the win, i don't think people would've bashed Booker for this feat. Anyway at 20 years old, this kid has a bright future.

At Thursday, March 30, 2017 1:42:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I cannot speak for others, but I am not "bashing" Booker. My article attempts to place Booker's accomplishment in historical context, noting that scoring 70 points is a rare feat and pointing out that there have been some "shenanigans" with other high scoring games as well.

Booker may have a "bright future" but right now Booker is certainly a less accomplished player at the time of his 70 point game than any of the other 70 point scorers; that is not "bashing" but just stating an indisputable fact.

Coach Watson deserves some criticism for helping Booker to chase individual numbers when the outcome of the game was no longer in doubt, much as Brian Hill felt that David Robinson's last seven points in his 71 point game were cheapened by the intentional fouls committed by his teammates to get the ball back.

At Thursday, March 30, 2017 1:49:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...


I'm not bashing Booker either (though I am bashing Watson, who's been awful in just about every way since becoming coach). If I thought there was any chance the Suns would develop him properly, or if I thought there was much chance he's still on the team in five years, I'd be over the moon; he's a lot of fun.

But the reality is that his coach is more interested in generating headlines than instilling good habits, he has shown little to no defensive improvement in his second season, and he is submerged in a culture of losing and stuck on a team with, by most accounts, dangerously bad chemistry.

I think it is likely that Booker, in the right system, could become the poor man's Ray Allen. I think, on the Suns, he's much more likely to become the poor man's Gilbert Arenas, and either abandon the Suns in free agency or sign a contract far out of alignment with his value.

I hope I am wrong, but I've been rooting for this franchise for twenty years and with the exception of a few smart moves in the mid 2000s, the scenarios I outlined above are much more in keeping with the way things go on the Phoenix Suns.


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