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2021 NBA Finals

Devin Booker’s big night takes Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas down memory lane

The Suns star scored 42 points in a losing effort in Game 4 of the NBA Finals

Isiah Thomas can’t forget Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals. His Detroit Pistons were one win away from claiming their first championship in franchise history. Thomas gutted out an ankle sprain to earn 43 points, eight assists and six steals in what could have been the signature game of his NBA career. But after some foul-related controversy that Thomas still hasn’t forgotten, the Los Angeles Lakers kept their title hopes alive with a 103-102 win to force a Game 7 and eventually capture the 1988 championship.

Thomas and the Pistons did claim the next two NBA titles. But just the mere thought of how that Game 6 loss after Thomas’ big night potentially cost the Pistons a possible three-peat still pains the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer to this day.

“I’m mad all over again now with the thought of it,” Thomas told The Undefeated on a call Wednesday night. “Every time the Finals come up, I think about it. Every year. We should have been the first team to three-peat. Every time the NBA Finals arrive, you think about the Game 6 we should have won. F— …

“I had a signature game, but we still lost. I look at it and say, ‘Yeah, it’s a signature game. But you lost.’ For myself, in terms of being in a zone, getting injured and setting a Final record, we still lost the game.”

Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker doesn’t want to be able to relate to Thomas’ pain. If the Suns lose the 2021 NBA Finals, Booker’s 42-point outburst in a 109-103 loss in Game 4 on Wednesday night could haunt him. Booker was sensational for the first three quarters against the Milwaukee Bucks, making 15 of 22 field goal attempts for 38 points. The two-time NBA All-Star made all seven of his field goal attempts, all contested, in the third quarter, resulting in 18 of the Suns’ 30 points.

Booker’s 38 points through three quarters were also two shy of Stephen Curry’s record in 2019. The fourth quarter arrived with the Suns up 82-76 and a win away from returning to Phoenix with a commanding 3-1 series lead. But with Booker challenged with five fouls early in the fourth quarter and slowed offensively, the Bucks evened the best-of-seven series at 2-2.

“It doesn’t matter at all,” said Booker, of his big scoring night. “I said that after last game, too, when I struggled shooting it. The main objective is to win the game. So, anything that goes on throughout the game, it doesn’t matter, for real.”

Suns head coach Monty Williams said he believed Booker could have reached a Finals-record scoring night if he wasn’t in foul trouble. Booker was in reach of 50 points, which has only been previously accomplished by an elite group of Elgin Baylor (record 61), Michael Jordan (55), Rick Barry (55), Jerry West (53), LeBron James (51) and Bob Pettit (50), according to Basketball-Reference. Booker, 24, also became the first player under 25 to score 40 points in a Finals game since Dwyane Wade in 2006.

“It’s hard, because he could have gone for 50-plus tonight,” Williams said. “I wanted to get him in maybe a minute earlier than I did. You’re just holding on trying to get as many stops and solid possessions as you can, but it’s not an ideal situation.”

Despite the Suns’ loss, Thomas also was impressed with how Booker responded after scoring just 10 points in Game 3.

“He was good. Not only was he good, but that is what you expect from the great players when they have a great game. At this level, you expect for them to bounce back the way he bounced back. Tonight, he solidified how great a player he is. We’ve seen in the past guys play bad and have another one. For the great ones it’s, ‘I didn’t play well but wait till tomorrow,’ ” Thomas said.

The Suns led 85-79 when Booker picked up his fifth foul with 10:50 remaining. The Bucks took over from there, as they cruised to the victory while Booker was cold once he returned, missing four of six field goal attempts in the fourth quarter, including shooting 1-for-4 in clutch time, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It could have been even worse for the Suns, as referee crew chief James Capers told a pool reporter afterward that Booker should have fouled out for making contact with Bucks guard Jrue Holiday on a layup attempt with 3:41 remaining in the game.

Booker declined to blame foul trouble as a reason for his fourth-quarter struggles.

“I was still in rhythm. It’s a mindset more than anything … I was still there, but that’s beside the point, to be honest,” Booker said.

The Suns still have home-court advantage as the Finals shift back to Phoenix for Game 5 on Saturday. Yes, “Book” will surely forget what could have been in Game 4 if the Suns win their first title. But if the Bucks win their first title since 1971, it’s likely inevitable that Booker will think back to that tough Game 4 loss on his big scoring night the same way Thomas still thinks about his big loss 33 years ago.

“It ain’t like I haven’t thought about it or we haven’t talked about it in our team group chat,” Thomas said, referring to the 1988 NBA Finals. “I think about it every year. When we won back-to-back titles, we talked about it. Our owner Bill Davidson, before he died, said, ‘We were the first team to three-peat. The official took the game from us.’

“As for the Suns and Bucks, it’s a series now. It’s even. You let Milwaukee get confidence back. It will probably go seven games now.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.