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Suns learning who they are in close games

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Phoenix is 6-10 in games determined by 5 points or less. This must change if they want to make a splash in the playoffs.

Phoenix Suns v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

It was a weird road trip, wasn’t it? The Suns, a team who scored 27.5 points-per-fourth quarter on 48.1% shooting through their first 41 games, couldn’t buy a bucket against some of the Eastern Conference cellar dwellers. “Booker Ball” was back; a term I coined years ago in reference to late game Devin Booker isolation hero ball. Who was that team?

What makes the Phoenix Suns brand of basketball appetizing and appealing is the ball movement. The 0.5 seconds or less philosophy that Monty has implemented allows for players to make one of three decisions when they receive the ball (and make that decision in 0.5 seconds): shoot, pass, or drive. This creates motion and fluidity, flexibility and poetry.

This has created the type of basketball that won a championship for the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs. That team, which faced the Miami Heat and their trio of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh, led the league in assists and exploited more talented teams with a precise passing and deadly shooting.

Do you know who had a front row seat to those NBA Finals? James Jones. He was a member of the Heat team that lost in 5 games.

The 2020-21 Phoenix Suns are not going to beat you with size. They won’t beat you with strength. Even speed isn’t their forte. When you combine Monty Williams’ coaching ideology and James Jones’ roster construction, it is clear that there is one way they are designed to beat you: with smarts.

When you bring in a point guard with the accolades and reputation that Chris Paul possesses, you know you are getting more than some State Farm commercials and national notoriety. You are getting someone who sees the game like the Queen’s Gambit, strategically planning out his moves and setting his players up like rooks and bishops on the court. A screen-and-roll fake in the first quarter might be used late in the game when Paul exploits an opposing players muscle memory.

Due to Chris Paul’s production, the consistency of the bench, and the continual growth of Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, and Deandre Ayton on both ends of the floor, the Phoenix Suns find themselves in 2nd place in the Western Conference. While some argue that aspects of the Suns are inconsistent, the one constant is winning.

In order for this to occur, they must continue to learn and develop. Becoming stagnant will allow for the opposition to recognize tendencies (especially come playoff time). When you stop and think about it, Phoenix has not been in too many close games. Their average margin of victory is 12.4 points and the team is 26-4 in games determined by 6 or more points.

Of their 45 games played, only 16 have been determined by 5 points or less. The Suns are 6-10 in those games and 12-11 in clutch games (games in which the scores was within 5 points with 5 minutes or less, regardless of final score).

The team’s recent east coast swing reminded us that, when games are close late, Phoenix has plenty of learning to do.

Many of us are wondering what is happening to the Phoenix Suns in the fourth quarter. For some reason they have lost all of their proverbial mojo and become a very pedestrian basketball team.

As I look at the “why”, it is clear that the Suns are falling in love with isolation basketball when they need a big basket. The challenge with this is it goes against the 0.5 second way of thinking. The pick-and-roll that produces so much opportunity for offense goes by the way side. The focus becomes taking time off of the clock rather than being aggressive. It’s like watching the Arizona Cardinals play prevent defense.

Take for example this play late in the fourth versus the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday:

Devin Booker holds the ball until it is time to initiate the offense. Seeing as it is so late in the shot clock, the defense is allowed to cheat and collapse, causing Booker to put up a less-than-optimal shot attempt. It is too late to hit one of the open three-point shooters (and in this game, why would you want to give the ball up to the perimeter? The team went 8-40). Booker lobs up a miss and the Hornets rebound the ball and initiate a fast break.

It’s not like this was the only time Phoenix fell into isolation ball late in this game. Due to their poor shot selection and lack of offensive initiative, they allowed the Hornets to go on a 14-2 run to end they game and send it to overtime.

Thankfully they won.

I understand why the Suns have tried to put games away with the big shot as of late: you have Devin Booker and Chris Paul. On paper you have two closers. The statistics might say otherwise. Chris Paul is #17 in the league 3.7 points in clutch time moments on 44.8% shooting. Booker, however, is 40th with 2.6 points on a very unsexy 27.5% shooting.

Devin has yet to regain his clutch status from a year ago, when he shot 42.0% and scored 3.0 points in clutch time, including the memorable game winner over Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.

Perhaps that is why Monty is choosing to go the route of running Booker Ball late. To give him a chance to gain confidence once again. To grow. To learn new ways to win this year (ultimately they did win on Sunday). This is the advantage of this year’s Suns. They’re winning, albeit not pretty sometimes. The team is trying different things, seeing what sticks, and growing.

The challenge that awaits the Suns in the postseason will be every game is a dog fight. The games will be close, and every possession will be a grind to the end. When the games are close, if the Suns begin to run their iso-“Booker ball” sets, the hope is this stretch will provide Devin the confidence to persevere. Or perhaps Monty will run a more fluid offense to earn bucket.

Whatever the the Suns do, they can’t rely on stagnation. They must continue to evolve based on what game situations provide. If they do, the late-clock dish to a perimeter shooter from a double-teamed Booker will not garner the result we want.

And what we want to win the ‘chip with the brand of basketball that beat James Jones in 2014.