by Joseph Quirk ’23
The NBA bubble is a unique circumstance which the league has never seen before. With a high demand for the return of sports, it also provided a big stage for a lot of players to break out and establish themselves as dominant forces. No one took advantage of this opportunity more than Devin Booker.
In the 2015 NBA draft, the Phoenix Suns selected Booker, a freshman at the University of Kentucky, with the No. 13 overall pick. This selection has turned out to be one of the smartest decisions in the history of the Phoenix Suns. Over his career, the 23-year-old shooting guard has averaged 22.5 points and 4.7 assists per game, while shooting 44.8 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from three. Booker also scored 70 points in a game against the Boston Celtics, making it the 11th game in NBA history where a single player scored 70 points or more in one game. He is one of only six players to do so and the most recent since the late Kobe Bryant.
At the end of an abysmal 2018 season, Booker famously stated, “I’m done with not making the playoffs.” Unfortunately, Phoenix missed the playoffs in 2019 and 2020 as well. However, this season felt different. Booker had a career year, with averages of 26.6 points, 6.5 assists, and 4.2 rebounds per game on shooting percentages of 48.9 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from three. Booker had one of his more efficient seasons as well, mainly because he could play off the ball more with the addition of point guard Ricky Rubio. He also had advanced floor-spacers in Kelly Oubre, Jr. and rookie Cameron Johnson, and strong bigs in Deandre Ayton and Dario Saric.
Indeed, the Suns were winning games and in striking distance of a playoff spot. When the bubble teams were announced, the Suns made the cut and made the best of their opportunity. Booker averaged 31 points, six assists, and five rebounds on efficient shooting splits while earning an All-Bubble First Team nod. He would lead the Suns to the only 8-0 record in the bubble. The stretch included wins over talented playoff teams like the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers, and Indiana Pacers.
All in all, Booker has put in a superhuman effort, elevating both his individual game and his team’s overall performance. The only reason the Suns missed the playoffs was because the Portland Trail Blazers, the team just ahead of them, won a game on a last second missed buzzer-beater.
Certainly, an argument can be made for other players to be named bubble MVP such as T.J. Warren and Damien Lillard, but Booker took the Suns to a new, unexpected level. He showed up when it mattered and beat some of the NBA’s best teams, which is why he should have earned MVP.
by Leo Hainline ’22
The conclusion of the NBA regular season saw some breakout performances from players such as Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, and Michael Porter Jr. The playoffs have also brought some iconic performances, including Luka Doncic’s game-winner against the Los Angeles Clippers and Donovan Mitchell’s 57-point game against the Denver Nuggets. Any of these players are worthy of being considered the bubble’s best player, but the NBA got it right when they gave the award to the Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard at the end of the regular season.
Even though the Trail Blazers were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round, Lillard’s performances reigned supreme and were the best in the bubble. In Orlando, Lillard averaged 33 points, eight assists, and 4.8 rebounds. Most importantly, he was able to lead his team into the eighth seed after entering the bubble 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot.
After missing two key free throws against the Clippers in their fifth game, Lillard not only stepped up his game, but became the best player in the league. Needing to win out to have any chance at making the 8/9 seed play-in game, the Oakland native dropped 51 and 61 points in his next two contests. Lillard channeled one of his many nicknames, “Logo Lillard,” as his shooting became automatic from everywhere on the court.
He came up clutch against the Dallas Mavericks in his 61-point game, hitting an insane high-bouncing three-pointer to bring Portland level in the closing moments and then seized the victory with crucial plays on both ends of the court. He followed with scoring 42 points, leading Portland to a crucial come-from-behind one-point win against the Brooklyn Nets to seal their place in the Western Conference play-in game. Lillard then had 31 points and 10 assists against the Memphis Grizzlies to secure Portland’s spot in the playoffs.
Lillard’s most iconic moment came in Game one of the opening round against the top-seeded Lakers. With the game going back and forth all game long, it became “Dame Time” for the last seven minutes of the fourth quarter. Lillard started knocking down contested threes from way downtown. The game began to shift in Portland’s favor when Lillard buried a deep three to tie the game at 87 with five and a half minutes to go. After that happened, Lillard was locked in, and the Blazers never looked back, taking the first game 127-119 over the top-seeded Lakers.
Although the Blazers lost their next four games and got knocked out of the playoffs, Lillard’s performances were incredibly memorable. No individual player on any team made more of an impact than Lillard for the Blazers in the bubble.