With only two teams now left standing in the quest to win an NBA championship, it is clear the Phoenix Suns came up against the best team in the Western Conference in the Denver Nuggets. They will enter the finals as firm favorites to defeat a Miami Heat group that have defied the odds as the eighth seed for over a month now.
Nikola Jokic has deservedly been the best player throughout the playoffs, but Jayson Tatum is another who had an excellent showing. Both he and Suns’ superstar Devin Booker have been compared for a long time now, as both carry a massive offensive burden for their teams and have at one time or another been the best player on their respective sides.
Both have also helped lead their franchises to the NBA Finals, and although they came up short, they are among the 15 best individuals in the league today. Booker has two years in the NBA on Tatum, but both are only entering their prime years and look set to be compared for a long time to come.
Given that Booker went supernova in the postseason, but that Tatum went one round further, can we now confidently say that Booker had the better playoffs of the two?
Booker has quite a few things going for him in trying to build a case that he outshone Tatum. He averaged a mind-boggling 33.7 points per contest, willing the Suns to a six game series loss to the Nuggets that only gets more impressive the further removed we become from those battles.
That was over five points more per night than Tatum’s 27.2, and it is telling that the Suns’ playoff offensive rating of 116.1 was third to only the Nuggets (an otherworldly 119.7) and the L.A. Clippers (116.3). The Celtics and Tatum finished with the exact same offensive rating, but they achieved this having played eight more games. Not quite advantage Booker, but it is something.
Tatum has been the better shooter from deep throughout their respective careers, but during these playoffs Booker sniffed 40 percent on just over six attempts per night, while Tatum could only manage a lowly 32.3 percent on 8.2 hoists per game. Booker does have the luxury of playing next to one of the best to ever do it in Kevin Durant, while Tatum had to rely on Jaylen Brown.
But when the Suns needed him, it felt like Booker just could not miss. He was much the better shooter then, and the 5.2 assists he managed each game were right there with the 5.3 Tatum dished out. Tatum is the better defender of the two, although it is closer than some would have you believe, but in terms of rebounds there is no contest. Tatum had over 10.5 a night, Booker 4.8.
Tatum did have the highest individual scoring game in the playoffs between the two, putting up a superb 51 points in a huge game seven win over the Philadelphia 76ers to advance to the conference finals. He had no 40 point games, whereas Booker poured in 47 against the Nuggets and had 47 and 45 point games versus the Clippers.
If there is a blemish on Booker here, it is that he managed only a paltry 12 points in his final game as the Nuggets closed out the series on his side. Tatum wasn’t much better in game seven against the Heat, but his 14 points were achieved on a clearly hurt ankle from one of the first plays of the game.
Tatum has the better overall supporting cast, with Derrick White helping the Celtics steal game six in Miami and Robert Williams III having several big moments off the bench. Throw in Al Horford, Marcus Smart and the moments when Brown played like the team’s number two, and that’s a fantastic top six.
Booker has the aforementioned Durant, but this was the year when age caught up with Chris Paul while DeAndre Ayton saw just 31.4 minutes of action per game in the playoffs and missed the final game against the Nuggets through injury. Even before then, he was far from dominant.
The fact Cameron Payne, Jock Landale, Torrey Craig and Landry Shamet were as relied upon as they were tells you all you need to know about the Suns’ depth. So Booker had to do more with less, and he did it in by far the harder conference. That is to take nothing away from Tatum and the Celtics, but had the Suns been dropped into the East, they’d have gotten at least as far as Boston.
But because Tatum got further and plays for a team like the Celtics, as well as having a strong statistical argument in his own right, it is hard to say that Booker outshone him this postseason. Through two rounds he absolutely did, but the playoffs don’t end after the conference semi-finals, and Booker is punished for this.
We will return to this argument ahead of the 2023/24 season, when the question will again be posed as to who you would rather have on your team to try and win a championship. In the 2023 postseason however, hard as Booker pushed Tatum, it was the latter who will be remembered as the third best player of the playoffs, after Jokic and Jimmy Butler.