That’s a stark contrast to this same time a year ago, when they were trucking along at a mind-blowing 12-2 in the clutch as part of their Conference-leading 26-6 record.
Health has a lot to do with it. Last year, the Suns lineup was mostly healthy into December, especially the two All-Stars Devin Booker and Chris Paul.
This year they’ve been in and out of the lineup but even when they’ve played the two key All-Stars have been underwhelming in clutch moments.
We all remember Devin Booker leading the Suns big comeback on opening night over Dallas, pulling the Suns to victory from a 14-point quarter deficit while Paul watched from the sidelines. We also remember just last Saturday, Book using his gravity to help the Suns hold off the Pelicans in the closing minutes to secure a much-needed win. But overall, Book is shooting only 30% this year in his 11 clutch game situations while leading the team in shot attempts (3.3). Two of those shots are threes, of which he’s only making 15% so far. By comparison, last year Book shot 57% overall, including 41% on threes, for a +3.0 on the scoreboard and a 26-6 record.
Still, he’s better than his All-Star teammate. Booker is 5-6 in clutch games this year with an overall +0.7 point differential, despite his bad shooting. He’s drawing double teams and finding the open man decisively, getting lots of uncounted ‘hockey’ assists.
Chris Paul has just been bad. Due to injuries, he has only appeared 6 of the Suns 13 clutch situations this year and has an abysmal 1-5 record in them (1-3 with Book beside him, 0-2 without Book). He’s shooting only 33% (compared to 57% last year, like Book) and is a negative (-1.0) on the scoreboard in those 6 games.
(Most) everyone else is doing fine in the clutch this year.
- Mikal Bridges has played in all 13 and is shooting only 33% on 1 shot attempt
- Deandre Ayton has played in 12 of the 13 and is shooting 52% on 2 shot attempts
- Damion Lee has played in 11 of the 13 and is shooting 50% on 1.3 shots (54% on threes)
- Torrey Craig has played in 11 of the 13 and is shooting 40% on 1 shot attempt
- Cam Payne has played in 8 of the 13 and is shooting 41% on 2 shot attempts in those games
All 7 players here, including Book and Paul, average at least 3.5 minutes of clutch time in those games they appeared in.
What does that tell you, that Ayton is getting as many shots as Chris Paul, and only one less than Devin Booker? And that Cam Payne has played in 8 of those 13 clutch games on big minutes?
It tells me that the Suns are mixing and matching while dealing with injuries/holdouts, which may or may not be contributing to Book and Paul’s underperformance to date.
A year ago, the Suns were a machine in the clutch. Any time the game got within 5 points in the final 5 minutes of a game, Paul or Book would make a shot to put it back out of reach. They led the Suns in shot attempts in the clutch and made 57% of those shots. Their 5-man starting lineup all played in at least 28 of the 41 games, and no one shot worse than Jae Crowder’s 45%. The only other player on the team with regular clutch appearances was Cam Johnson, who shot 58% in 25 appearances.
This year, only three of those six guys have been regulars in the clutch — Book, Ayton, Bridges — and they’ve all underperformed because the mix just isn’t right. Damion Lee, Torrey Craig and Cam Payne have played prominent roles this year in clutch time due to the injuries and holdouts.
Let’s look at the Bright Side.
It stands to reason that the Suns will benefit from this period of the season. Guys like Craig, Payne and Lee have a good taste of it now. Ayton’s shot attempts in the clutch have doubled, and he’s getting tougher shots now in those situations. Even Mikal Bridges, though he’s missing a lot of them, is getting more self-creation shots in the clutch. Both were getting the easiest of shots last year in the clutch due to the sheer dominance of Paul and Book.
The big question is whether Book and Paul will rebound, with their numbers ascending back up toward the mean. Probably. At least back to a respectable level, with a winning record and relatively okay shooting percentages.
The Suns are only 5-8 in the clutch this season, including 2-6 in games decided by 3 points or less and 0-2 in overtime. Last year, that was 33-9 in the clutch, including 6-2 in games decided by 3 points or less and 2-0 in overtime. It’s fascinating that all last year, only 8 of 82 games were decided by a one-possession margin while this year’s it’s already 8 of 32.
This year’s Suns are not as good as last year’s. That will improve when Cameron Johnson comes back and Jae Crowder is replaced with someone else (January? February?). It’s also possible that the continued improvement of Booker, Ayton and Bridges can offset the Chris Paul decline, and that Paul’s decline is less sharp by the end of the season than it is now.
The days of winning 78% of clutch games may be over, but I’d be happy with 60% or anything above average.
For now, they’ll just have to slog along and grab wins when they can.