Will a clutch player please stand up for the Phoenix Suns?
As Saturday’s close game with the Dallas Mavericks wound down, it appeared the home team had something the Suns lack: Someone to count on in close situations.
With the Mavericks down by double-digits in the third quarter, Dirk Nowitzki went on a scoring tear, pouring in 14 points in the period, including hitting back-to-back 3-pointers that brought Dallas to within two.
Nowitzki added seven points in the final quarter and finished with 23 in the game. Monta Ellis terrorized the Suns in the fourth period as well, scoring 12 of his game-high 37 points and recording assists on two significant Mavericks buckets down the stretch.
Although Ellis missed three free throws in the fourth, both he and Nowitzki looked in control as the game went back and forth. Meanwhile, the Suns players, for the most part, looked hesitant to take big shots in crucial situations.
If you were watching the game, Eric Bledsoe looked like the closest thing Phoenix had as the leader in crunch time. He scored seven of his 29 points in the fourth and picked up critical rebounds and steals, but he also missed two free throws near the end and was easily blocked on a driving layup by Dallas’ Brandan Wright with 12 seconds left.
Markieff Morris has at times looked prepared to go toe-to-toe with the league’s best in close games. He made a long 2-pointer to essentially ice the game Wednesday in New Orleans — a Suns six-point win — but he missed a 3-pointer Saturday on a poor look that would have tied the game with Dallas.
Close games have been problematic for Phoenix. Although 28 of their 47 wins have come by single-digit margins, the team has only won five games this season by five or fewer points. Compare that to 12 losses by five points or fewer — including the one in Dallas — and it’s easy to see that the Suns need a large lead in the closing minutes or else they’re in trouble.
According to NBA.com, when the score is within five points with under five minutes to go, the Suns shoot just 40.6 percent from the floor. It’s far from the worst mark in the league, but it’s much lower than their overall shooting percentage of 46.3. They also make just 24.4 percent of their 3-pointers such close situations — compared to 37.4 percent overall — and average one turnover as a team in that time.
In the final minute of games with a five-points-or-fewer differential, the Suns shoot only 35.2 percent from the field and 20.8 percent from behind the arc.
Bledsoe, Morris, Goran Dragic, Gerald Green and Channing Frye comprise the Suns players who generally get the most opportunities in close, late-game situations, but only Dragic has shown impressive stats in this area — 51.1 percent shooting in final five minutes with the score within five points, including 57.1 percent shooting in the final minute — while Green and Frye’s numbers are borderline anemic. Dragic, however, doesn’t have a signature game-changing shot in his catalog this season — such as Green’s game-winner in Minnesota on Jan. 8.
If there’s a player on the Suns’ roster with a killer instinct when a game is hanging in the balance, coach Jeff Hornacek is still waiting for him to emerge. If there isn’t, that might be a quality the team looks for in the offseason either via free agency or the draft.