The Phoenix Suns have continued to stutter along to start the New Year, having dropped three out of the last four games. A disappointing turn of events, given that the team had won four-in-a-row before that for their second longest winning streak of the season.
Kevin Durant missed two of those four contests with a hamstring issue - but the Suns' single win during this period came in a game that he missed - a home win over the Miami Heat. With nearly half of the season gone and the Suns still languishing in a play-in position in the Western Conference, they need to shake things up quickly if they want to make any noise in the postseason.
Crucial to this will be fixing the fourth-quarter woes that have hampered them recently, but why exactly is this happening to a team with so much firepower?
In the last three contests, the Suns have scored 19, 18 and 20 points in the fourth-quarter. Those 19 points coming in the Heat win, when they kept their opponents to 97 points total. Prior to that, they did put up 31 in the final act versus the Clippers and even outscored them in that quarter - but with the Clippers hanging 131 on them on that occasion - it didn't make any difference as they lost.
It is clear then that the Suns have struggled to score in recent games when it really matters, but this is a worrying development, because they have three of the best scorers in the league in Durant, Bradley Beal and Devin Booker. Really it is the defensive end where most expected them to struggle - and while that has also sadly been the case - the anaemic points output in the fourth is of huge concern.
The Suns rank a lowly 17th in fourth-quarter points so far this season, at 28.2. That is a number they share with the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers, which you would think is a good thing. But with the Pacers one of the best offensive teams in basketball this season and the 76ers dumping it down to Joel Embiid when they're stuck, they have a better understanding of who they are at this point.
Which could mean that the Suns' struggles here are because they haven't gotten to see their "Big 3" play a ton together (Monday's loss to the Clippers was only the sixth time this season), but shouldn't the presence of Durant or Booker alone negate that? If anything it should make fourth-quarters simpler for them when Beal or Durant are missing, because it straightens out the pecking order.
The numbers would appear to back this up as well, with Durant currently 11th in total fourth-quarter points scored this season, at 210. Booker isn't too far behind either, sitting at 27th in the league at 174 total points. Putting the basket isn't the issue then, so perhaps the problem is more simple than that.
The Suns need only look at the Clippers - a team who have beaten them twice during this stretch - to get an idea of where their problems may lie. When they traded for James Harden back at the start of November, they went on to lose their first six games with him around. Fans were quick to point out what a disaster the trade was, with Harden deferring far too much to his teammates.
Fast forward to now however, and the Clippers sit fourth in the West at 23-13, and are having the kind of season that the Suns envisioned. To watch them beating the Suns was to see a group that have figured it out offensively. So much so that Harden is getting his when he wants to, but is doing a great job of teeing up the likes of Ivica Zubac and Terance Mann multiple times per game as well.
The Suns don't have that kind of harmony offensively right now, not when everything still feels so new with Beal and now Durant back in the starting lineup. If anything Grayson Allen has been their third best player this season - and while that is a nice story for him - this also explains why the Suns have struggled to score when it really matters recently.
Teams can game plan for Allen in the fourth-quarter of games, and when combined with Beal still trying to figure out how he fits into all of this, it makes the Suns a disjointed and deferring mess that struggles to put up points when opponents clamp down on them. This can all change, and quickly, but unfortunately for the Suns it absolutely has to, otherwise they're going nowhere fast.