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Without Chris Paul, clutch time is a tough time for the Phoenix Suns

News flash: losing two of the league’s best clutch performers is bad for business

Phoenix Suns v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns have been pretty good without Chris Paul, losing only to unusually hot-shooting New Orleans, Utah and Milwaukee in the 6+ games he’s missed.

They are 3-3 overall in six full games, ranking 9th in offensive efficiency, 12th in defensive efficiency and 11th in net rating (+4.1) in that time. Not great, but not bad.

The offensive has actually been good, as they are top-10 in a lot of offensive categories while Paul and now Devin Booker (3 games) are out. They rank 6th in scoring, 7th FG%, 3rd 3P% and 3rd in assists. It’s the defense that can’t get enough stops to make that good offense count most of the time.

Still, the Suns have been leading or within striking distance (within 5 points) in the final minutes of 6 of the 7 Suns games since Paul went down. They have one blowout and three close wins against only one big loss and two close losses, both on Sunday on ABC against healthy playoff-caliber competition.

Cameron Payne has been a big boost since returning to the Suns lineup and filling in as starter the last three games. Payne is averaging 15.0 points and 10.7 assists against only three turnovers, though he’s still not shooting well (40% FG, 31% 3P).

But Payne is no Paul. And Landry Shamet is no Devin Booker. And so, the Suns have been pedestrian in the clutch.

Let’s break down the Suns in the clutch, before and after Paul’s injury.

Before Paul went down, the Suns were a league-best 23-3 in the clutch with an overall +93 points in 80 clutch minutes. That’s not new either. Last year, after the settling-in period, the Suns finished the year 20-5 in the clutch with Paul at the helm.

Since Paul went down, the Suns are 3-2 (if you include the Houston game). Not bad, but not great either. They got credit for the Thunder game that had only one possession of clutch time, and a buzzer beater from Cameron Johnson to pull out the Knicks game.

Overall, the Suns are a net negative in the clutch without the services of Chris Paul these past two weeks, officially at -4 overall in 16 clutch minutes over 5 games. Let’s break down each of the games, separating what calls ‘clutch possessions’ from the overall scoring differential in the last five minutes of each game that qualified for clutch time (score within 5 points in the final 5 minutes of regulation time).

Suns vs. Houston, 2/16

Suns lead 109-104 with five minutes left. Devin Booker leads the team after Chris Paul left the game in the 3rd quarter with the Suns down 8 points. The entire final five minutes was considered clutch time, as the score remained no greater than +/- 5 points there on out.

Houston tied the game twice and took the lead once, before the Suns closed out with a 13-7 run to win by three points, 124-121.

  • Last five minutes plus/minus: -2
  • Official ‘clutch’ plus/minus: -2

Suns vs. Thunder, 2/24

Clutch begins as the Suns lead just 103-98 at the five-minute mark after Poku makes a three. But on the Suns next possession Mikal Bridges makes a layup, and the Suns outscore the Thunder 21-6 the rest of a game that never got within 5 points again. Suns win 124-104.

  • Last five minutes plus/minus: +15
  • Official ‘clutch’ plus/minus: +2

Suns vs. Pelicans, 2/25

No clutch time. The Suns were down 109-94 at the five minute mark of the 4th quarter and never got within 5 at any point. Suns lose 117-102.

Fun note: After the 15-point win over the Suns, Willie Green’s Pelicans set an NBA record for three consecutive wins by at least 35 points by a team that started the streak at least 10 games under .500. Willie’s got that team BALLING.

Suns vs. Jazz, 2/27

This game counts as a ‘clutch’ game for only a couple of possessions of the fourth quarter, as the Jazz were ahead by more than 5 points for most of the final minutes of the game. Each time the Suns were within 5, the Jazz drew a foul and made 1 of 2 free throws.

At the five minute mark, the Suns were down 6 points, 105-99. They outscored the Jazz 15-13 the rest of the way, but still lost by 4 points.

  • Last five minutes plus/minus: +2
  • Official ‘clutch’ plus/minus: -2

Suns vs. Blazers, 3/2

No clutch time. The Suns were leading 111-81 at the five minute mark of the 4th quarter.

Fun note: The Blazers lost their first three post-All-Star games, including this one, by at least 30 points each after injuries and trades decimated the roster.

Suns vs. Knicks, 3/4

The Suns were trailing 102-99 with five minutes remaining, and outscored the Knicks 16-12 the rest of the way, capped off by Cameron Johnson’s three pointer as time expired to seal the euphoric win. The whole five minutes counted as ‘clutch’ time, with the Suns winning the game 115-114.

  • Last five minutes plus/minus: +4
  • Official ‘clutch’ plus/minus: +4

Suns vs. Bucks, 3/6

This is the bad one. The Suns were down two points, 115-113, with five minutes remaining, and were outscored 17-9 the rest of the way. They shot okay, but had a ton of mistakes: on offense they had two really key turnovers and two shots blocked. On defense, they gave up two offensive rebounds and put the Bucks on the free throw line three times in those clutch minutes. Just key mistakes that can’t happen against a full-throttle Bucks team, as the Suns lose by 10 points, 132-22.

  • Last five minutes plus/minus: -8
  • Official ‘clutch’ plus/minus: -6

In summary, the only really well-executed clutch time since Chris Paul went down was the OKC Thunder game. Otherwise, they’re just not getting the combination of stops and scores to close out teams without their All-Star back court in there. Duh.

On the plus side, not one minute of clutch time these past half-dozen chances has had even TWO of Paul, Book or Cameron Payne in them together. Book ran point the first three clutch chances but then went out with COVID when Payne returned to the lineup for the last two clutch chances. That the Suns have even won any of those clutch games is a boon, I guess.

Payne is frustrated with himself after that Bucks loss.

“I had two key plays I wish I could have been better,” Payne said. “That turnover and that layup.”

The Suns had possession, down 122-121 with 2:15 left, when Payne lost the ball off his leg on a drive to the paint. The next time down, he had a clear lane to the hoop and laid it up with barely any space between his hand and the backboard, but Giannis found a way to block the shot anyway.

The Bucks scored after both of those failed possessions, putting the game out of reach. Payne was understandably really down on himself at the post-game presser.

“I got to be better in the fourth for our team,” Payne said with a shake of his head. “I just feel like if I would have been better we would have had a better opportunity at the end of the game.”

Payne had a really nice 23 points and 8 assists in the game, but came up empty in the clutch. He also did not get the ball to Deandre Ayton, who’d been a great mid-range release valve all game scoring a season-high 30 points on 14-19 shooting. But DA did not get a shot attempt in the final five minutes of the game.

Bucks guard Jrue Holiday really turned it on in the 4th quarter on both ends, and Payne gave him credit.

“I got to give him love,” Payne said. “He played well. He’s just showing me where I got to be better. I’ll give him his flowers today.”

Holiday had 17 points (5-6 shooting) in the fourth quarter alone as Milwaukee went into big shot-making mode to close this one out against the severely short-handed Suns. As Khris Middleton put it after posting second-highest scoring game of his career, 44 points, on ABC after the game ended, “This was a must-win.”

Sure it was. After getting blown out by the Suns in Phoenix just two weeks ago when both squads had their best players available, the Bucks could not lose at home to a Suns team missing both All-Stars and hot shooting Cameron Johnson, who’d just scored 38 points on Friday night.

Still, the Suns were not happy with a close loss no matter who’s out of the lineup.

“We got find ways to win the game,” Payne said.

Next Up

Suns continue their road trek, against Orlando on Tuesday and then the surging Miami Heat on Wednesday, before returning home for a pair of games next weekend.

The NBA’s bare minimum on vaccinated and boosted players being out with COVID is five days AND back to back negative tests at least 24 hours apart. Today is Devin Booker’s 5th full day in protocols, so it’s possible he will be cleared tomorrow, fly 5+ hours cross-country and play in Florida on Tuesday or Wednesday. But even in the best of cases, COVID is COVID. It’s a respiratory virus. I would guess the Suns would be conservative, especially with an 8-game lead with only 19 to go. Most likely, Book is back for Friday’s game, but we’ll watch the injury reports in any case.

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