Last season, the Phoenix Suns were historically great in the clutch.
The Suns’ net rating in the clutch was 33.4, the third-best dating back to the 1996-97 season behind the 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers (34.2) and 2015-16 Golden State Warriors (34.1). They also had a 33-9 record in clutch time, good for the third-best percentage in the same time span.
The Suns also had the best average fourth-quarter margin (plus-2.6) and most fourth-quarter points per game. Chris Paul is one of the most experienced players in the NBA and Devin Booker further emerged as a superstar, making the Suns one of the most reliable teams en route to a franchise record 64 wins.
However, the Suns have not been as effective this season. Paul has missed five games due to heel soreness and Phoenix has suffered as a result.
The Suns have gone 2-3 in Paul’s absence, including losses in three of their last four games. Two of those losses came by one point.
Those defeats marked three of six Phoenix losses that have been decided by two points or fewer. It is not the same Suns team, granted, and they have new players off the bench, including impact players Damion Lee and Jock Landale (Phoenix has also gone 3-4 without starting forward Cam Johnson after he tore his right meniscus).
Still, this statistic is one of the key differences for Phoenix in its pursuit of another top seed for the postseason. The Suns rank No. 14 in the NBA with a minus-0.1 average fourth quarter margin, according to TeamRankings, and are second-worst in the NBA in the clutch with a 1-4 record.
After they ranked second in the NBA in opponent points per game (103.9) through their first nine contests, the Suns’ defense has also struggled in their last six games, allowing teams to score 116.2 points per game and shoot 47.4 percent from the field (39.1 percent from 3-point range).
The Suns are minus-1.4 through those six games.
Suns coach Monty Williams said Saturday that changing rotation pieces have played a role in Phoenix’s recent efforts but he has also seen positives.
“Over the course of these games where we’ve had guys out, we’ve shown the ability to do a number of things well,” he said. “We just haven’t stacked it up the way that we need to.”
Phoenix has three upcoming games against teams with a record at exactly .500 or lower: the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Detroit Pistons. It should give them an opportunity to shore up some of their mistakes and refine their chemistry with Johnson and Paul out.
Williams said Saturday it is important for the Suns not to rush Paul, who ranks second in the NBA in assists per game (9.4), back to the floor. He has been ruled out for Sunday’s game against the Knicks and will be re-evaluated next week, per the team.
But his presence is key from a leadership standpoint, even with the emergence of backup point guard Cameron Payne as a starter, and in the clutch.
They will need him and better performances in close games to be the team they want to become.
“He’s not at a place where he can get back on the floor just yet…” Williams said. “Probably taken a bit longer than what people thought it would because we just haven’t shared what it is. It’s just how we operate. It’s his foot, so you’ve got to be careful with that. We certainly don’t want it to creep back up on us. We want to make sure he’s as close to 100 percent as we can.”