INDIANAPOLIS — Devin Booker was on fire Friday. This wasn’t just a candle, match or even a flamethrower being lit. This was the Phoenix Suns star guard playing like the sun itself, burning the Indiana Pacers in every way possible at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
Booker had 29 points in the first quarter, a franchise record for any quarter in the Suns’ 56-year history. The previous record of 25 points? Also held by Booker, who in 12 minutes of star power looked like the center of the solar system. Perhaps Pacers coach Rick Carlisle saw this coming.
“We’re living in a different galaxy,” Carlisle said a few days before, reacting to Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid’s 70-point game.
Booker finished with 62. He needed 65 in a gut-wrenching 133-131 loss to the Pacers.
Down by two points with 3.4 seconds left, everyone in the building knew the Suns would likely turn to Booker. Kevin Durant set the screen, Grayson Allen threw the inbound pass and Booker, after initially slipping to the ground, rose for a 3-pointer.
Aaron Nesmith didn’t block the shot, but he did block the Sun. The Pacers guard met Booker at the apex of his jumper and his right hand served as a solar eclipse for Phoenix.
“When a player of that caliber gets going like that, it’s extremely hard to stop,” Nesmith said, tipping his cap to Booker. “I just tried to be as physical as I could be without fouling.”
That doesn’t mean Nesmith was always successful. After Booker erupted in the first quarter en route to his second career 60-point game, Nesmith drew the assignment of being Booker’s primary defender. He picked him up full court, chased him around screens and bumped him in the post. Most of the time it was to no avail.
Booker shot 22 of 37 from the field, 6 of 12 from beyond the arc and 12 of 13 at the free-throw line.
“He made tough shots time after time,” Nesmith said. “He played phenomenal basketball.”
Booker is now one of nine players in NBA history with multiple 60-point games and one of 18 with at least seven 50-point games.
Two of Booker’s points came on a bank shot after what Pacers fans considered a cheap shot. As Booker drove down the lane with roughly nine minutes left in the third quarter, he discarded Nesmith by elbowing him below the belt. Nesmith immediately crumpled to the floor, and Pacers coach Rick Carlisle was incensed. He yelled at the officials while Nesmith was being evaluated by trainers and eventually received a technical foul.
#Pacers fans and their head coach Rick Carlisle upset after seeing Devin Booker elbow in that area of Aaron Nesmith before scoring.
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) January 27, 2024
Ironically, Booker, who should’ve been whistled for an offensive foul, shot the technical free throw for his 45th point that gave Phoenix a 94-87 lead. Nesmith spoke to Booker after the play, and Booker claimed it was an accident, so Nesmith said there were no hard feelings.
That didn’t make it hurt any less.
“It woke me up,” Nesmith said.
Obi Toppin echoed Nesmith, adding that Booker’s elbow ignited their whole team. From that sequence on, Nesmith totaled eight points, three rebounds, one charge and one block to help the Pacers outlast the Suns.
Trailing 129-127 with 1 minute, 37 seconds remaining, Nesmith drew a charge on a driving Allen that kept it a two-point game and allowed Andrew Nembhard to make the game-tying midrange jumper on the ensuing possession.
“Aaron is a dog,” Toppin said. “He’s gonna go out there and do all of the little dirty (work) things to help our team win.”
Nesmith, who scored 22 points, spearheaded Indiana’s defense, which held the Suns to 17 points in the fourth quarter, while Toppin and Nembhard provided the late-game offense.
Pascal Siakam, appearing in his fifth game since being traded from the Raptors to the Pacers last week, had another huge performance with a team-high 31 points, seven rebounds and four assists. But in crunchtime, Siakiam took a backseat as Carlisle handed the keys to Nembhard, who had 22 points and eight assists, and scored six straight points on Allen to tie the game at 131.
When the Suns finally forced the ball out of Nembhard’s hands, Toppin capped off his 23-point and 11-rebound night by being in the right place at the right time. Bennedict Mathurin missed a contested go-ahead layup in the closing seconds, Siakam missed a point-blank putback and Toppin redeemed both by grabbing the rebound and converting a lefty layup that turned out to be the game winner.
“We’re trying to accomplish something,” Toppin said of his team’s togetherness and resilience since adding Siakam. “We haven’t been to the playoffs in a while, and we feel like we can really fight to get far in the playoffs. (Friday) felt like a playoff game.”
After snapping the Suns’ seven-game winning streak, Carlisle still took a moment to marvel at Booker. The 27-year-old now holds the single-game scoring record in four venues (70 at TD Garden, 62 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, 59 at Delta Center and 58 at Footprint Center), but he was the second-hottest NBA player on Friday.
Carlisle’s former player, Luka Dončić, scored a career-high 73 points to lift Dallas past Atlanta. He became the fourth NBA player this week to score at least 60 points in one game, joining Embiid, Booker and Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns. Dončić is also just the fourth player in league history to score 73 points in a single game and the first since the late Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in 2006.
Dončić joined Booker, who scored a career-high 70 points in 2017, as one of 10 players in NBA history to score 70 points in one game. Four have done it over the last two seasons.
“Luka is just so great. I think he’s just so good,” Carlisle said. “Booker, the same thing. Booker has developed a defiance about how he plays, particularly at the offensive end, but really at both ends. This is compelling stuff in the NBA. If you’re a defensive coordinator in this league, good luck.”
The Pacers may have been a bit lucky Friday, flying too close to the sun, but unlike Icarus, their wings didn’t melt during Booker’s heater.
Indiana found a way.
(Photo of Devin Booker and Aaron Nesmith: Ron Hoskins / NBAE via Getty Images)