After splitting their recent four-game road trip with a 2-2 record — despite all four contests being very winnable games — it’s safe to say that the Suns have some issues to sort out.
We’ve already touched on the mental mistakes and even more recently, the dumb technical fouls, but as the Suns continue to drop games that they need to win in order to make the playoffs, now it’s Phoenix’s fourth quarter struggles that need addressing.
According to NBA.com, the Suns are the highest scoring fourth quarter team in the league, averaging nearly 28 points per game in that period. They also have the second-best fourth quarter plus/minus in the NBA, outscoring opponents by an average of 2.8 points in the final period.
And yet, no one thinks of the Suns as a clutch team that can close out games. That’s not a surprise given their 2-6 record in games decided by three points or less, their 7-9 record against teams above .500 or their 0-4 record in overtime.
Is that to be expected of a young team with a second-year head coach? Sure. But for a group that wants to make the playoffs, the late-game struggles are going to have to change if that’s going to become reality.
For one thing, Phoenix commits 3.5 turnovers in the fourth quarter on average, a bottom-10 mark in the league. And despite being such a high-powered fourth quarter offense, the Suns only have a 55 percent win percentage in the fourth.
But it’s also worth taking a look at how this team has failed to execute in a large number of games already, even though we’re only halfway through the season.
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Against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday, the Suns trailed by three points with less than two minutes to play until P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris received back-to-back technicals that helped put the game out of reach. The Suns rallied to make it close, but were unable to steal a very winnable contest, having to play the foul game in the final minute instead of being able to play for a stop.
The Suns gave up 41 points in that fourth quarter to a Spurs squad that was missing Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker for virtually the entire final period, not to mention Kawhi Leonard for the whole game.
Against the Memphis Grizzlies last night, Phoenix squandered numerous opportunities to win the game. Though they outscored Memphis 35-26 in the fourth to send the game to OT, that game never should have gone into double OT.
First of all, the Suns received a very generous no-call when a P.J. Tucker layup dropped with five seconds left after Eric Bledsoe grabbed the net. It should have been offensive interference, but nothing was called, Tucker’s layup tied the game and it went to overtime.
The Suns continued to outplay the Grizz in the first overtime period, and had a two-point lead with 33 seconds to go thanks to a big Bledsoe three. The Grizzlies turned the ball over and all the Suns had to do was get fouled and make their free throws with 25 seconds to play.
Eight seconds later, Isaiah Thomas dribbled into a trap near the half-court line and pulled a Bledsoe, jumping to pass out of the trap…right into Mike Conley‘s waiting arms. Phoenix still had two timeouts, but instead of using one when IT dribbled into trouble, the Suns committed a costly turnover that resulted in Goran Dragic running into Courtney Lee.
That mistake of a foul sent Lee to the line because Memphis was in the penalty. Lee sank the free throws and on the game’s final possession, Bledsoe wasted the entire clock dribbling around, ultimately settling for an ugly, contested midrange jumper on an iso-play.
In double OT, the Suns had run out of gas and lost a game — for the second time in a row — that they should have won against a very good team on the road.
These are just the most recent examples, which don’t include close losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder (three points, OT), New Orleans Pelicans (four points), Detroit Pistons (two points), Houston Rockets (five points), Orlando Magic (three points) or Sacramento Kings (two points, OT).
I don’t know what it is, but this team seems incapable of making big plays when it matters most. The Suns outscore their opponents in the fourth and they’re one of the league’s best free throw shooting teams, but even when guys like Tucker or Morris or Bledsoe knock down clutch shots, some other mistake always seems to cancel it out.
If you need examples, look no further than the ugly Blake Griffin game-winner or the even uglier Khris Middleton heartbreaker. It’s high time the Phoenix Suns fans got rid of that sickening feeling in their stomachs and started closing out games like a playoff team should.