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Stephen’s Study: Poor Clutch Play, Chris Paul’s Stamp, Ball Pursuit from Ayton

Suns drop another on the road, falling to 1-5 on the road trip

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns certainly played well enough to win Wednesday, via 25-point efforts and pace controlling play from Chris Paul, and ever-presence on the glass from Deandre Ayton, however, a lack of execution in the clutch would resurface, leading to an 88-90 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

1.) Poor Clutch Play continues

The Suns entered the last five minutes of Wednesday’s fourth quarter up seven.

A left-wing Donovan Mitchell three, off the dribble and late in the shot clock, would see the Cavaliers come within four.

That moment was when the game entered the clutch (final five minutes, within five points).

From there, the Cavaliers would proceed to outscore the Suns 14-5.

They’re now 5-11 in the clutch, a league-worst mark.

In the past two seasons, they ranked second in 2020-21 (25-12), and first in 2021-22 (33-9).

The stark change can be directly attributed to execution or lack thereof.

Continuity in the clutch is a real thing, and yes, the Suns haven’t had their “usual suspects” in regard to their best lineups from the dominant stretches of clutch play of the two seasons prior.

That plays a huge role in it all. There’s also a subsequent lack of flow, liberation, and trust that dissipates both with the lack of continuity, as well as with each passing loss in this manner.

This all pertains to the offensive side of the ball.

Defensively, they have a nauseating rating of 122.4 in the clutch.

That is where the true problem lies for me, as, at their peak (last season) their clutch defensive rating, of 98.2, was tied for the best in the NBA.

A subsequent league-best net rating of 33.4 ensued.

The defensive side of the ball is where they were able to dictate, via versatility in the scheme as well as trust in rotations and activity, in a dominant fashion, that consistently stole the soul of their opponents while also giving the opposing coaching staff headaches.

They were like a machine.

Off of that execution is where momentum and their unparalleled offensive flow, which came in waves largely from Paul and Booker, stemmed from.

They either can’t contain the ball, or corral rebounds to stamp a stop, in closing moments in this present injury-riddled rendition.

Change is likely as positive regression is sure to surface for this team as they get their core back in rotation, together.

However, the clutch is presently a plague of this team’s attempts to stay above float amidst impactful production being lost to injury.

A net rating of -15.7 details that more than anything else at the moment.

2.) Chris Paul’s Stamp

Two intangibles that are always a tell-tell sign as to just what frequency the hall of Fame Wake Forest product is operating at, in any given game, are ferocity and flair.

Though older now, Paul still possesses a wicked handle, aided by violent shake and a mind that processes in triple time, on both ends of the floor.

He’s always on the prowl as a playmaker, collecting data and assessing opponent, coaching, and coverage date, like a computer, over the course of a game, with which he then picks his spots to blend scoring with his all-time great point guard play.

The manner in which he goes about doing so is unique from any lead guard in league history, and that aforementioned ferocity and flair were present in this one.

14 points in the second quarter as he sensed a need for his scoring punch, followed by eight in the fourth, with a true shooting percentage of 66.6, saw more flashes suggesting that he’s rounding into form.

He’s just in need of one consistent comrade in this stretch sans Booker to help shoulder the load offensively.

That partner didn’t surface offensively in operating independently of him, and the loss resulted from that, but the slow ramp-up has expedited over the past couple of weeks.

Cumulatively, in 15 games since Paul returned from the heel injury, he’s now at 16 points per game on 44.4/44.6/75.0 shooting. Along with 8.1 assists per,(with potential assists-galore), 4.2 rebounds, and 1.3 steals.

Over the last five games, he’s at 18 points per on 50.0/56.0/85.7, with four of those five seeing him knock down multiple hits from deep.

He’s also knocking down his signature mid-range jumpers with higher efficiency too. The all-encompassing points per shot attempt measure (total points scored 100 shot attempts, including field goal attempts and trips to the line), has him at 128.6, per Cleaning the Glass, which is 4th amongst point guards in this window.

His offensive blend and steady hand progressing in this manner bode well for this team, even amidst a window where other entities may be leaving more to be desired.

3.) Ball Pursuit from Ayton

The Suns have had their bouts with bigger opposing frontcourt tandems, particularly on the boards (especially after forcing misses with good initial defense).

Unpacking their defensive issues generally brings them back to whether they crashed the glass after an initial board.

Against a healthy Cavaliers frontcourt of Allen and Mobley, Ayton was able to hold his own.

He’d finish with a game-high rebound percentage of 23.1, and amass 18 total boards. That made 10 more than the eight rebounds each Allen, Mobley, and Love grabbed individually.

The Suns, as a result, were +3 on the glass.

He’d be accompanied by four or more boards corralled from four other teammates in this one, showing a collective emphasis on the glass.

It kept them in a position to compete and have a chance to win, while undermanned against an Eastern Conference elite.

Those 18 boards make for his second-highest single-game total of the season.

Up Next: The Suns return to Footprint Center for a matchup with the 20-19 Miami Heat tonight.

They’ve gone 4-3 over the last two weeks, with the 11th-ranked offense (118.8/100 possessions), and the 13th-ranked defense (115.5/100 possessions), in this window.

The Herro-Adebayo pick-and-roll (or pick-and-roll-adjacent play) has been evolving this season, as they continue to process it into the fold as a staple of their offense.

In a lot of ways, the evolution of those two, with the Heat veterans taking a step back to allow for their young talents to more thoroughly ingratiate their evolving talents to the fold, is not unlike what the Suns are doing with Bridges and Ayton.

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