The Phoenix Suns are 8-7 on the year but have been within three points in the final minute in six of those seven losses. The Suns acquisition of closer Chris Paul — the league’s best clutch player a year ago — to play alongside incumbent closer Devin Booker — owner of half dozen game winners on his resume — was supposed to make the Suns unbeatable, or at least formidable, in the closing minutes.
But in the first 15 games, the Suns are only 3-6 in close games (within three points in the final minute) including a pair of overtime losses to the Denver Nuggets this weekend.
Lack of offense in the fourth quarter is the main culprit for the Suns’ woes.
*This topic was first covered by contributor Rod Argent in the weekly Center of the Sun, which Dave further fleshed out for today’s feature article.
Worst in NBA in fourth quarter offense
23.7 4th quarter points per game, 99.2 Offensive Rating
Their 23.7 points per game (PPG) average in fourth quarters is dead last in the NBA (before Monday’s games), down 6.3 PPG from their 3rd quarter average (29.0, 8th in the NBA) and the 4th is their worst scoring quarter overall (26.7 in the 1st and 29.2 in the 2nd). Their PPG average in the fourth quarter virtually does not change in wins (23.8) or losses (23.6) so it’s consistent. Their 99.2 offensive rating in fourth quarters ranks 29th and is far below their full-game 110.5 ORtg (11th).
On defense, they’ve been good in the fourth allowing opposing teams to average only 25.2 ppg in the final quarter (tied for fourth-best in the NBA). Their full-game defensive rating is 10th (108.7 DRtg) and they are actually slightly better on D in fourth quarters with a 107.4 DRtg.
But when you put their putrid offense next to that defense, you get disaster. Their full-game plus-1.8 net rating (11th overall) drops to a dismal minus-8.2 NetRtg (25th) in the fourth quarter. They have an overall winning record because they usually take a lead into the fourth quarter (they’ve led at the end of three quarters in 11 out of 15 games so far).
All this points to an offensive problem as to the reason why they ultimately lost several games in which they had early leads. As this problem tends to only show up late in games, it’s a combination of underperformance from the pair of All-Star ball handlers and a need for offensive scheme adjustments from coach Monty Williams.
Breaking down the fourth quarter woes
Starts and ends with the three ball
Three-point shots account for 44 percent of the Suns’ total shots this year even with their three stars Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton shooting mostly inside the line.
Over an entire game, the Suns are making 35.8 percent of their threes per game (14th) this season but in the 4th quarter they are hitting on only 26.2 percent of their three-pont attempts (29th).
Let’s break it down by player...
As a team, the Suns average 8.4 attempts from behind the line every fourth quarter out of 20.3 total shots. That’s 40 percent of their shots, and they’re only making 26.2 percent of them! No wonder the scoring is down.
Of course you’re going to say that the Suns take way too many threes in the fourth, but that rate is actually lower than the first three quarters when the Suns drain almost 40 percent of those long range shots.
Is it nerves causing the misses? I doubt it. Crowder, Saric, Booker, Paul and Galloway are all veterans and all are usually at least as good from long range in the fourth as the rest of the game. And really the youngest players on this list — Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson, both age 24 — have a smaller drop than the vets.
Is it that every team chokes on threes in the fourth? No, actually. League average on 4th quarter three point shooting is not even 2 percent less than the full game average (34.3 percent vs. 36.1 percent)
Maybe it’s just white noise. Or coincidence. Or maybe it’s that no one is comfortable as of yet in the new offense with Chris Paul and Devin Booker taking turns as the head of the snake.
Shot distribution and key factors in the 4th versus whole game
*there’s not an easy way to include the first three quarters in data slicing on NBA.com/stats so bear with me here.
The Suns actually get their leads through three quarters by making three-point shots as the bulk of their offense (8-3 when leading after three quarters), but they actually stop taking as many threes in the final quarter, and as you read above they stop making the ones they do take!
Their total-game three point attempts now rank fifth in the NBA, but drops all the way to mid-pack (16th) in the fourth quarter.
What gives? Chris Paul and Devin Booker, that’s what. The two closers feast most often on midrange shots, and their usage goes sky high in the fourth compared to the rest of the game.
The shot distribution in each half looks like you might have expected it to look before the season started. Very even distribution in the first half, then a bit skewed toward the All-Stars Booker and Paul in the second half.
Unfortunately, Booker and Paul have not played well enough to deserve that uptick in usage rate. They shoot worse, pass worse and turn the ball over a lot more in the fourth quarter than their career histories suggest. Of course, this means that the Suns are so far a winning team even with their All-Stars playing below their expectations.
1. Wait for CP3 and Book to return to form
Both were All-Stars a year ago. Paul’s OKC Thunder started 5-10 last year in their first 15 games before straightening everything out and surging to the 5th seed in the Conference a month later. They had six different four-plus game win streaks before the season was shut down in March and finished with a 44-28 record. And Booker has shown us for five seasons that any short-term dip in performance is followed by a much longer run of excellent play. If they both return to form, the Suns don’t have to change anything to win the majority of their close games.
2. Balance the fourth quarter offense
We can hope they recover their All-Star form, but in the meantime Monty Williams should do what he can to force a more balanced offensive attack rather than allow Booker and Paul to settle for driving into the teeth of the defense and settling for contested mid-range shots.
The Suns should keep doing what got them the lead in the first place rather than revert to “closing time” offense of point guard isolation drives into the middle. In the two Denver games, Chris Paul amassed 25 first-half assists but only three in the second half. This isn’t a perfect analogy, but the Mavericks had a similar issue a year ago in that they led the league in full-game offense by shooting a gob-ton of threes but bogged down in the clutch with isolation drives that just simply didn’t produce as well as the wide open attack did.
And it’s not just threes the Suns stop shooting as much in the fourth quarter: it’s also passes into the paint to Ayton. In each of those Denver games, Ayton got the majority of his points in the first half (along with the majority of Paul’s assists).
I’m not saying Ayton and three-point shooters like Jae Crowder are the answer, but they need to be a little bit more of the solution.