EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
What happened to the Phoenix Suns in the clutch this season?
Mar 22, 2023, 7:40 AM | Updated: 9:32 am
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
Most faithful watchers of the Phoenix Suns became familiar with this term last season if they weren’t already. A team’s clutch-time record clusters only the games where the score is within five points or less in the last five minutes. More simply, games that were up for grabs for either side.
And in these attainable affairs, Phoenix was historically tremendous in 2021-22. It was 33-9, a win percentage of 78.6%, the fourth best in NBA.com’s database that goes back to 1997.
Its company included the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors (30-4, 88.2%), the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks (32-6, 84.2%) and the 2012-13 Miami Heat (32-8, 80%), three all-time regular season teams.
This year, even with the same core pieces in place most of the year, the Suns have not been able to replicate it. That’s all well and good. Can’t be historic if it keeps happening, right?
But what has occurred is Phoenix has gone from the best in crunch time to one of the NBA’s worst at a record of 13-17.
First, some necessary contexts and asterisks. The Suns have played 71 games this season and only in 10 have they been able to play a starting five that a fully healthy Phoenix squad would. That has understandably affected the team’s rhythm, as has this latest injury for Kevin Durant when Phoenix was three games into adapting to him.
All of this, however, is not good enough reasoning for Phoenix’s shocking lack of execution compared to the previous year. It has lost four of its last five games, and while only three of those qualify as clutch time, the fact that they didn’t come down to the last possession or two is even more startling.
There have been a few back-breaking runs sacrificed for that to be the case. That’s how the Suns are 6-5 since the All-Star break despite being 11th in offensive rating and 10th in defensive rating over that time.
In a March 11 loss to Sacramento, the game was tied at 115 with 3:39 remaining. The Kings were later up six at 45 seconds to go.
For a March 12 defeat to Golden State, it was 87-84 Warriors at 3:57 left in the third quarter. Less than five minutes later, the Warriors led by a dozen shortly after the fourth quarter got underway.
Against Milwaukee on the 14th, a 97-97 tie at 6:48 to go was a nine-point Bucks edge by the time two more minutes passed.
And in Oklahoma City on Sunday, Phoenix went from up 10 with 10:52 on the clock to a 113-104 Thunder edge at 4:39, a 19-point swing in six minutes and change.
That is not because Durant is out. Or the pieces that were traded for him are no longer here. The Suns are a very good team playing like a very bad one for a pocket of time when a game is usually decided.
We were talking about injuries, yeah? Well, last year’s Suns only had two players appear in at least 70 games after just about everyone had a brief but notable stint out. This Phoenix squad, even after the huge in-season deal, is on pace to have five.
Last year’s absences and the durations of them were not as significant as they are now but it has to be said that the 64-win Suns just kept racking them up either way and really, really knew how to when it counted.
Why can’t this Suns team? A deeper look inside NBA.com’s analytics provided some insight.
The statistical outliers within last year’s clutch numbers haven’t carried over to this season and then some. And don’t think of statistical outliers with a negative connotation to dissuade you from their legitimacy. It’s far more that the Suns were improbably awesome in one facet.
Instead of looking at Phoenix games where the Suns were within five points in the final five minutes last season, we will first focus on ones that were at one point tied or featured a Suns deficit of five points or fewer before scanning the opposite.
The Suns were an astounding 16-9 in these catch-up games. That’s seven games above .500. The Suns were the only team in the NBA last year to finish at or above that line. The average win percentage was around the low 30s because, well, comebacks in the game’s dying moments are really freaking difficult. Phoenix’s 64% just about doubles that.
How about this year? Well, the 16-9 record has faded to 5-17, a win percentage of 22.7% that ranks bottom five in the league.
Something drastic had to change there, so let’s look around. These outcomes are determined more often than not by premium shot-making. Did who is taking the shots and how efficiently they are making them change? “Yes” and “no” to both.
Again, in games last year across the closing five minutes the Suns were either tied in or trailing by five points or fewer in, Devin Booker (12-of-25, 48%), Chris Paul (9-for-17, 52.9%) and Mikal Bridges (13-of-17, 76.5%) led the charge in field goal attempts.
This year, it has been Booker (15-for-30, 50%), Deandre Ayton (12-of-23, 52.2%) and Paul (7-of-17, 41.2%). Ayton, for reference, attempted eight shots in those situations last season (and made all of them).
There’s more to those numbers we’ll revisit. Ultimately, nothing too telling individually.
To go back to our original thought, the killer execution is missing. Phoenix shot 60.4% across the 58 total minutes that produced that 16-9 mark in clutch come-from-behind games. This year, the 5-17 result in 65 minutes is a field goal percentage of 42.9%, a steep dropoff to an average-ish return rate. The defensive rating went down a few ticks from 100.8 to 106.3 but nothing that would indicate the problem is on that end. On offense, a 12.9 turnover percentage dips to a brutal 16.3% as well. That does indicate a problem.
At the same time, that’s not all too surprising. Sure, Phoenix should be much better this season. Last year was also an anomaly of sorts and the law of averages comes for all.
The more egregious, eye-popping changes from year-to-year come when we flip the circumstance from the Suns chasing a game to being in possession of it.
Phoenix in the 2021-22 campaign was a ridiculous 33-4 in games it either tied or at one point led in the last five minutes by five points or less. Its offensive rating in those 87 minutes was a nuclear 125.7 and a terrific defensive rating of 93.0 means it was a net rating of 32.7.
This season, the net rating is -11.0 thanks to a fine (for this part of a game) 104.6 offensive rating and poor 115.6 defensive rating. The Suns’ record is 13-13 in those games. That 50% split is tied for last in the NBA.
So what’s going wrong when they’re ahead or at one point were late?
Paul (19-for-32, 59.4%), Booker (18-of-31, 58.1%), Bridges (12-for-21, 57.1%) and Ayton (12-of-16, 75%) put teams away last year.
For this iteration, Booker (8-for-29, 27.6%) and Paul (7-of-21, 33.3%) have been really struggling. Ayton (14-of-24, 58.3%), meanwhile, has not been. And Bridges (10-for-20, 50%) held up his end before departing as well.
For what it’s worth, those percentages for Booker and Paul should not be used to speak ill of who they are as players this year. Some of the league’s best like Giannis Antetokounmpo (12-for-40, 30%), Stephen Curry (12-for-35, 34.3%) and Ja Morant (11-of-36, 30.6%) have similar, ugly clutch shooting percentages.
The story here is less about the Suns’ fall from grace as a clutch superpower and more about how they are not good at securing games in winning time this season.
The numbers are what they are. From an eye-test perspective, this was always Paul’s time. He’s the maestro, setting things in motion whether it involves him or not. The uptick for Ayton this year (to good results) speaks to Paul deferring more. He’s the one running the two-man game with the big the most, and Paul’s inconsistencies in this year-to-year advancement with 1) getting to his jumper in rhythm and 2) making it will affect him nowhere more than when the game is on the line, when he has always been one of the best.
Booker’s big decline wouldn’t be as alarming if the numbers weren’t still as great when the team is trailing in these situations, as we covered.
The good news, like it is with everything around the team right now, is that the Suns now have Durant. It’s quite the three-headed snake Phoenix will roll out when the postseason commences. The question is if Durant can help fix what has been broken this season.