Suns

Can Phoenix Win in the Playoff Clutch?

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Over the last few weeks, the Phoenix Suns were given a favorable schedule.

Ideally it was an opportunity for the Suns to get a firmer grasp on the Western Conference’s two seed. It’s even better timing with teams like the Nuggets improving with their new additions and the Lakers slipping due to their injuries.

Everything seemed to be aligning for the Suns to increase those top seeded odds.

Two issues, however, remained at the forefront of Phoenix’s issues during this slate of games– they play down to the level of competition and fourth-quarter struggles are evident.

The Orlando Magic game at the beginning of this stretch couldn’t have highlighted that any better. In that game, the Suns took a lead into the fourth, but only mustered 20 points in the period, shooting 7-23 from the floor and losing 112-111.

That loss meant the Suns had now lost to four of the five worst teams in the league.

On top of that, seven of their 15 losses coming to teams from losing records. For some reason, the teams Phoenix should beat handily haunt them in the end.

Still Learning by Experience

From there, the Suns went on a string of wins! But damn were they some ugly, ugly wins against the lesser competition in the East. In the following four games the Suns:

  • Held off the 11th-place Raptors 104-100. In that game, the Suns were up 98-88 halfway through the fourth, but shot 1-10 rest of the way and brought Toronto back in the game.
  • Beat the sixth-place Hornets — without LaMelo Ball — 101-97 in overtime. Scored FOURTEEN points in the fourth compared to 23 for Charlotte.
  • Outlasted the fourth-place Hawks 117-110. Suns had a 14-point lead midway through the third, only to let Atlanta get within two by the end of the quarter.
  • A 121-116 win against the 10th-place Bulls minus Zach LaVine and Coby White. Suns had another 14-point lead in the third but let Chicago right back with a 11-2 run in the fourth.

It wasn’t until the following game against the Oklahoma City Thunder that Suns fans could feel happy about a win. No Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Luguentz Dort for OKC meant the Suns were going up against a very weaker opponent. After the first, the Suns exploded out to a 43-13 lead and never let the Thunder back in the rest of the way.

It was a very welcoming sight!

The Suns understand they need to still figure things out in closing moments of games. After the Hornets game, Devin Booker spoke to members of the media and acknowledged they’ve got to be better in late-game situations. Book also thought it was good for the team, saying “the best way to learn is to experience it. Being in the fire and learning from it.”

From a Suns franchise that has spent so long already out of the playoff picture, most of this team is still learning winning basketball no matter who they go against.

The Big Man the answer?

For all the great things the Suns did against OKC, the following game against the Rockets reverted to the same script despite Houston missing John Wall and Eric Gordon. The Suns built a 15-point lead midway through the third, only to have the Rockets take a three-point lead midway through the fourth. It was a roller-coaster ending, but the Suns were able to pull out the victory in the end.

A possible explanation for the Suns late game is the involvement of the big man, Deandre Ayton. As the game approaches crunch-time situations, his usage seems to drop. As it drops, the team’s points drop as well.

The most significant dip is in the fourth quarter. As this team continues to learn to play in significant games, Ayton also needs to grow into being more dominant.

It’s something Suns fans and the team are still waiting to see consistently.

The Rockets game is a prime example of how impactful Ayton can be when he gets in that zone. Monty Williams mentioned that after the game, “He’s just a force down there when he wants to be and I think he feeds off the confidence that we give him.”

It’s something Suns fans have been calling for since he arrived.

The matchup with the top-seeded Utah Jazz showcased another positive, dominant impact Ayton can have. In the fourth quarter and overtime, Ayton collected eight rebounds– five offensive. The effort by Ayton led to multiple easy and second-chance looks for the Suns.

Even battling Rudy Gobert, Ayton still made a powerful impact on the game.

His effort and energy keyed the Suns to a crucial win over Utah. If the Suns can find a way to make Ayton involved in the late-game offense — and if he shows the will to do it — it could unlock the true potential of this team.

Seeing signs of Improvement

In the games since, the Suns have only seen one crunch-time slip-up since the Utah matchup. In those games they:

  • Had their win streak snapped at seven with a 113-103 loss to the Clippers.
  • Took their anger out on the Wizards in a second-half beatdown and a 134-106 victory.
  • Carried that beatdown energy into the first half against the Rockets and won 126-120.
  • Rallied behind the bench mob, won 106-86 against the Heat.

It was encouraging to see the Suns keep their leads against Washington and Miami. Not only keep their leads, but dominate both teams and keep their leads firm.

Against the Rockets however, the crunch-time woes still came back. Even with a scorching-hot first half led by Jae Crowder‘s seven 3s, the Rockets still came back.

Down by as much as 21, the Rockets were able to cut it to five near the end of the fourth. It followed a routine the Suns have shown for allowing teams — non-contending teams especially — to come back and sweat games out. As Monty said to the media after the game, “as happy as I am about the win, I understand this league a lot and we just have to be better in those moments when you have a chance to put a team away.”

Through it all, the Suns are still at the top

While these issues still plague the Suns, they are still winning games. Thankfully the Suns remain No. 2 in the West. What’s even more impressive, even with the offensive struggles, is this Suns team is the best offensive-rated team in franchise history. Better than the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns and the Barkley-era Suns.

Simply the best offensive Suns team ever.

Can’t forget about the defense! The Suns currently stand fifth in defensive efficiency, making one of the most efficient Suns teams ever. Monty has this team bought into the defensive philosophy. Jae Crowder continues to be a valuable signing, giving the Suns the extra wing defender for the philosophy to work. Top that with a number of defenders coming off the bench who can harass opponents (like Jevon Carter) makes a top-five defensive team.

This Suns team has shown the flashes of — FINALLY — a true contending team. A team Suns fans have not seen in pretty much a decade. Even with the total 180 this year’s Suns have displayed, there are still noticeable improvements. The clutch-time issues and maintaining leads is something we can still see the Suns improve on.

In CP3 and Book — maybe even Ayton — they have the players to ice the game. Come playoff time, the Suns won’t see as many bad teams that seem to give them trouble like this string of games. Nonetheless, contending teams find ways to close out games. It may be the last thing the Suns need to figure out to be unquestioned contenders.

Follow us on Twitter @SunsLead for the latest Suns news and insight.

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About Dylan Eustis

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