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What to expect when you’re expecting clutch regression

The Suns have struggled to close games of late. Should fans be concerned?

Memphis Grizzlies v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns are down to a clutch (last five minutes of regulation or in overtime, score within 5) net rating of a mere +37.0 following their two close losses to Golden State and Memphis. Before the two losses, it was an astounding +49.1 which is 17 full points higher than second place.

During those two consecutive losses, the Suns posted a horrid clutch net rating of -39.6, so for their season number to still be so high tells us two things: 1) they were historically great leading up, and 2) we probably should’ve seen some regression coming.

“Sit Tight and Assess”

To really dive into whether Suns fans should have any concern in the face of this regression, we first have to find any glaring causes.

The first thing I looked for was in connection with the hamstring injury that Devin Booker suffered in the first Warriors meeting on Nov. 30. Since that game (and including it, since Booker was out during the clutch moments of that game as well), the team is +23.0 in clutch situations over 14 total games, meaning that’s not the tell we’re looking for.

Reducing that sample size to the past 11 games – post-second meeting with Golden State, in which Phoenix was manhandled from start to finish, due in part to no Booker and a limited Mikal Bridges, who dislocated his finger in the first quarter of that game – drops the clutch rating to a mere +11.1, meaning we’re starting to get somewhere.

Some games during that 11-game span include: a 4-point win over San Antonio in which Chris Paul scored just enough to clinch the victory and a 4-point overtime win at Portland when Deandre Ayton totaled 28 points and grabbed 13 rebounds set up by Paul who had 24 points and 14 assists before a few blowout wins led up to Christmas. Both of those close wins came in Booker’s absence and with Bridges at well below 100% with that finger injury.

What’s actually wrong?

This closer look at the causes tells me a few things: 1) Carrying the load for the missing Booker and limited Bridges may have started to wear on Paul, Ayton, and the depth that had to step up, 2) Booker had a tough time getting back into it once he was back, especially against the Warriors on Christmas, 3) the issue will probably persist as the team goes through a COVID outbreak of their own that they’ve avoided all regular season, and 4) no one should be concerned long-term about this team in the clutch, especially if they’re able to acquire another shot creator in the buyout or trade market.

1) With the re-emergence of Cam Johnson as a true scoring threat off the bench, the depth should be in better hands than when it was struggling a bit earlier on. Cam Payne settling down a bit helps in that area as well; as I noted in the Memphis recap, he had 0 turnovers in 24 minutes. It was the second time in the past three games that he never turned it over after averaging 2.9 in the previous 10. He continued on this path back to steady with just one turnover against Oklahoma City.

2) Booker’s outing against Memphis reminded us that we need not worry about him, scoring 30 points on 10-20 shooting along with that clutch 3 that put the Suns in position to almost win it. His performance against Oklahoma City reinforced that even more with 38 points on 12-24 shooting.

3) The squad will likely struggle here a bit in the short term, but coupled with the recent relaxing by the CDC and NBA on isolation periods, the Suns don’t need to worry too much, as they’re a contending team with June/July ambitions dealing with a small outbreak around New Year’s.

4) The buyout market will likely be a tough climate this year, especially as teams scramble to deal with COVID availabilities, but the Suns are one of just a few contenders who own all their first round picks after 2022, which is a valuable commodity in the trade market, looking at guys like Houston’s Eric Gordon or Oklahoma City’s Kenrich Williams. Having an expiring contract like Jalen Smith at $4.5 million may be enticing to teams as well.

“Every little thing is gonna be alright”

You hate to take the “we have bigger fish to fry” approach, but that’s the necessary one to take here. Overall, the regression is mostly indicative of a rough two-game stretch – for the most recent of which, the Suns were critically shorthanded, missing Jae Crowder and Ayton – against an exceptional 30-game stretch before.

While the team likely won’t end the season at the +49.1 mark they were at earlier, Suns fans have no need to worry.

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