Late-game struggles continue for the Phoenix Suns

The Phoenix Suns may have a new and improved defense to toy with, but one thing hasn’t changed — they still can’t perform late in games. So many times this season the Suns have built up a lead heading into the fourth quarter, but the wheels come off down the stretch.

Phoenix rarely rises to the occasion with the game on the line, which is a big reason the Suns are sitting in 11th place in the Western Conference. Here are the games this season when the Suns have come up just short with the clock winding down:

  • Season opener in Portland. The Suns led 81-75 heading into the fourth quarter, and still carried a 91-88 lead with just over five minutes remaining. But the Trail Blazers came storming back, rattling off an 18-1 run to close out the game and win 106-92.
  • Nov. 24 at home against Chicago. Phoenix took an 84-72 lead into the final period against Derrick Rose and company. The Suns even led 101-99 with 14 seconds to go, but Rose sent it to overtime with two free throws. Phoenix led again in the first overtime, up 110-107 with 12 ticks left. But a pair of missed free throws and two Bulls buckets sent it to double OT where Chicago stole one in Phoenix, 123-115.
  • Dec. 7 at home against Portland. The Suns once again fell to the Blazers in crunch time, as Portland erased a six-point deficit to start the quarter. The Blazers rattled off 37 points in the fourth as the Suns were stagnant offensively, leading to a 106-99 loss.
  • Dec. 8 at home against Memphis. Phoenix gave this game away, spoiling a huge comeback from the bench. The Suns led by three with two seconds left, but they forgot about Rudy Gay in the corner as he splashed a triple to send it to overtime. The Suns couldn’t break free in the extra period, with Memphis outscoring them 12-6 in the final five minutes to leave US Airways victorious.

That’s four sure wins that the Suns let get away, and that’s not even counting Phoenix’s most recent blunder. The Suns led the Kings 87-75 with 5:50 to go, but scored only two points the rest of the game to ultimately lose 94-89 to the NBA’s worst team.

Their inability to score late and come up with big-time stops is the difference between an 19-13 record and the 14-18 record that has the Suns three games out of the Western Conference playoff picture. So why is it that the Suns stall with the game on the line?

No go-to guy

Don’t blame Jason Richardson’s departure, this problem has existed all season long — the Suns have no go-to guy late in games. Vince Carter could/should be that guy, but he’s scored only two points in the last five minutes of the three games he’s played in this season and lives on the perimeter.

It could be Steve Nash, but he wears down as the game comes to a close and is forced to give the ball up more often than not. Grant Hill could be the guy, but he’s limited offensively in terms of three-point shooting, not to mention that he’s 38.

The Suns have always lacked a go-to-guy late in games. Amare Stoudemire was close, as he got to the free-throw line and gave them an inside presence, but even he was borderline. It’s hard to close out games when you thrive off one play — the pick and roll — and have no one to carry you when the pace slows down.

Phoenix settles for far too many jump shots, and jump-shooting teams usually get exposed in crunch time. Against the Kings it looked like no one wanted to take the big-time shot, and those who did took bad ones.

They would swing the ball lazily, dribble out the clock and take a contested jumper instead of driving hard to the rack. Here are a few flat-out ugly possessions against Sacramento that came as a direct result of lacking a go-to guy.

Below is the shot the Suns got off to tie the game. They had the ball with 25 seconds left and Nash penetrated nicely while everyone watched, but he kicked it to Mickael Pietrus, who forced a triple with 19 seconds still on the clock.

Here the Suns have a chance to take the lead with just under a minute, but Nash dribbles out the clock, ends up kicking it out and Phoenix settles for a deep Carter three that barely draws iron.

Below is another awful possession that came as a result of not having a go-to guy. The Suns look lifeless, swing it around the perimeter and Marcin Gortat ends up having the ball with one second on the shot clock 20 feet from the hoop.

Unless the Suns land a premier guard or big man or Carter is able to step into the role as the closer, the Suns will continue to struggle to score when the game slows down and the stage gets bigger.

Lack of defensive toughness

While the Suns’ offense stalls late in games, they also have no problem relaxing on the other end. Even with defensive stoppers Pietrus and Gortat now in the mix, the Suns still lack the defensive mentality and toughness that is necessary to put teams away.

They lose focus on the defensive end, leaving shooters open and defending big men as if they’re guards. For some reason the light turns off for the Suns on the defensive end late in games.

Here Carter made arguably the biggest mistake of the game — leaving Omri Casspi wide open with the game tied and 30 seconds left. He gave Casspi, a known three-point shooter, three or four feet of room with the game on the line.

Here’s another play when neither Gortat nor Nash picked up Fransisco Garcia in transition.

Credit goes to DeMarcus Cousins here for an amazing finish, but this play embodies the Suns’ lack of defensive toughness. He out-muscled Gortat and the rookie brought his team back into the game.

Lack of rebounding

The Kings absolutely blasted the Suns on the boards on Sunday, outrebounding Phoenix 60-32 — the team’s worst margin of the season. In fact, in all of the aforementioned meltdowns the Suns lost (or tied) the rebounding battle, and it wasn’t even close. In those four games, plus the Kings game, the Suns were outrebounded 197-143.

Where they get killed most is on the defensive boards. That’s been no secret all season long, but it was expected to change with the Polish Machine down low. The Suns have still struggled on the defensive glass, however, and yielded 18 offensive boards to the Kings, who are tied for first in the NBA in offensive rebounds per game, but still 18 is far too many.

The Suns rank 28th in the NBA in defensive rebound rate and 29th in offensive rebounds allowed, and it isn’t getting much better for Phoenix.  Inability to protect the glass leads to second possessions and tired legs for the Suns, and it’s killing them late in games. Here are some deflating offensive reboounds the Suns gave up against Sacramento.

Below the Suns have one of their best defensive possessions of the game, but an offensive rebound demoralizes them once again.

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