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Even without Devin Booker, the Suns' 4th quarter woes are inexcusable

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
November 13, 2023
The Phoenix Suns are the NBA's worst fourth-quarter team

A 4-6 record isn’t the start anyone saw coming for the Phoenix Suns, but it’s the way it’s come about that’s cause for alarm.

The Suns have only had Devin Booker for two games and Bradley Beal for three. Beal’s clearly not 100 percent yet, fading in second halves and playing on a minutes restriction.

But the Suns should at least be 7-3, and one could argue they should be 8-2…if not for their status as the NBA’s worst fourth-quarter team, that is.

After Sunday’s disastrous finish in a 111-99 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Phoenix’s fourth-quarter stats rank near the bottom of the barrel by almost every measure:

  • 30th in points (21.8)
  • 30th in assists (4.3)
  • 30th in turnovers (4.8)
  • 30th in FG% (36.5%)
  • 29th in 3P% (24.4%)
  • 28th in FTAs (5.3)
  • 30th in point differential (-6.1)
  • 30th in total point differential (-61)
  • 30th in O-rating (89.0)
  • 15th in D-rating (114.3)

The Suns were already bottom-feeders in these categories, but Sunday pushed them even lower. OKC is a quality opponent off to a good start, but Phoenix’s 6-point lead entering the fourth quarter dissolved into a 12-point loss by the end.

The Suns were outscored 31-13 in the final frame, shooting an atrocious 2-for-21 overall (including 1-for-8 from 3-point range) while committing 4 turnovers.

“We can’t win games that way,” Kevin Durant said. “No matter what names you got on the roster, how many points they scored in the history of the game, if you don’t make shots that night, you can’t win.”

Unfortunately, as much as it’s a make-or-miss league, the Suns’ issues may go deeper than that, considering this has become a recurring problem just 10 games into the season.

In the team’s first loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix got outscored 28-11 in the final frame, turning a 12-point lead after three quarters into a 5-point loss. The Suns shot 5-for-20 overall with 9 turnovers in the fourth.

This ugly monster reared its head again when the San Antonio Spurs came to visit. A 13-point lead heading into the fourth turned into a devastating last-second loss after the Suns were outscored 33-19 in the final frame, shooting 7-for-20 overall with 4 turnovers.

And in their first In-Season Tournament group play game, the Suns tripped over themselves again down the stretch against LA, turning a 7-point lead into a 3-point loss. They were outscored 33-23 in the final 12 minutes, shooting 9-for-20 overall and committing 4 turnovers.

Four of the Suns’ six losses have occurred after they led by at least 6 points entering the fourth. A 19-point outing against the Chicago Bulls easily could’ve swung that overtime win into another loss as well.

“That issue has nothing to do with Book,” Josh Okogie said. “We’re supposed to be winning these games without him. We’re supposed to have his back be able to win games when he’s not playing.”

The OKC game marked a new low, especially with Bradley Beal and Kevin Durant in the lineup. But coach Frank Vogel believes his team is actually making progress after drilling their fourth-quarter organization and decision-making over the last 72 hours.

“It’s a tough night,” Vogel said. “You got Brad battling through his back injury and trying to get his legs under him, KD’s been carrying a heavy load for us all season, he’s played every game and pretty big minutes. But I think the execution was better than it was versus the Lakers and with some of the other fourth-quarter breakdowns. We just didn’t make shots.”

That assertion, of course, is up for the debate. The Suns haven’t been whole through their first 10 games, but they’ve let four winnable contests slip away, and that requires a deeper look into what’s plaguing them late in games.

Turnovers continue to wreck the Suns

Turnovers are yet another problem that Devin Booker can help with, since he’ll take over the majority of the playmaking. But Book has been turnover-prone at times, and the difference between last season’s efficient, micromanaged late-game offense under Chris Paul and this current iteration is clear.

The Suns are averaging the third-most turnovers in the NBA, including the most in fourth quarters. That not only takes away extra scoring chances, but it often gives opponents fast breaks that are easier to capitalize on. Some of the fourth-quarter turnovers have been downright sloppy:

“I feel like in a lot of these games where we’re up going into the fourth, it’s not the end of the game, it’s the beginning,” Grayson Allen explained. “So taking care of the ball a little bit better earlier and kind of keeping that lead.”

Turnovers are to be expected from a team playing without its lead ball-handler, not to mention a roster full of new faces. There have been quite a few miscommunication errors, where the ball-handler throws the pass for a cut when his intended target chose to space, or vice-versa:

“It’s just about making the correct play, sometimes just slowing down,” Durant said. “We play too fast sometimes trying to make the home run play when we could just hit singles. I just feel like once we start making shots and that ball starts swinging even more, we’ll be in good shape.”

That process takes time. Learning teammates’ tendencies doesn’t happen overnight, and doing so without the proverbial straw that stirs Phoenix’s drink makes everything more challenging.

“I think it’s mostly just a chemistry thing, just not having a lot of time spent together,” Keita Bates-Diop said. “We just got Brad back for the second game, Book’s been out. Kev’s been consistent, but lineups — I wasn’t playing, but now I’m playing. So it’s a lot of, not roster turnover, but just fourth-quarter turnover.”

The Suns understand they’re working through different roles for certain guys. Allen and Eric Gordon have taken on more ball-handling and playmaking with Booker and Beal out, and now Gordon joined the injury list. Okogie has waffled between a starting spot and a bench role. All of the bench guys have had to adapt to how defenses are playing off them while focusing on Durant.

“With the guys we have, other teams guard them so many different ways,” Okogie explained. “So it’s also on us, the role guys, being able to learn and figure out what spaces and spots we’re supposed to be when we see different defensive looks from the other teams.”

Vogel isn’t making excuses; he’s admitted the early going has been frustrating, because the Suns believe they have enough to get these wins that are slipping away. But they also believe the cohesiveness will come, especially once they’re whole.

“Work on our execution and work on ways to be better,” Vogel said. “We’re gonna get right. We believe in that, we got a hell of a player coming back soon, hopefully, and keep the big-picture mindset.”

Suns are leaning too heavily on Kevin Durant

Perspective is important, but with or without Booker, the Suns’ late-game offense needs to improve. One guy alone can’t fix the team’s putrid shooting percentages, lack of ball movement, high number of turnovers and everything else, especially since Book typically plays entire third quarters before resting to start the fourth.

In the meantime, that task has fallen to the 35-year-old Durant, who has simultaneously carried the Suns’ offense while also falling short down the stretch.

It’s obvious Phoenix needs KD on the court as much as possible. The Suns are a team-best +29 in his 367 minutes and plummet to a team-worst -32 in 118 minutes without him. Whenever he’s sat to start fourth quarters, he’s had to watch as his team forfeits momentum.

In the first Lakers game, LA made an 8-0 run in the 2:32 Durant rested. Against the Spurs, it was an 11-3 spurt over 3:38. In the Lakers rematch, it was a 14-2 run over a 4:08 stretch. Each time Durant needed a well-deserved breather, the opponent swung the game in their favor. Whether it was forcing ugly shots, committing turnovers or just missing open looks, this version of Phoenix went down in flames whenever KD stepped off the floor.

It got so bad that Vogel and his staff tried pulling Durant earlier in the third quarter against OKC, just so he could be on the floor to start the fourth. They tried to sub him out around the three-minute mark of the third quarter, but a stoppage didn’t come until the 1:25 mark.

Durant got a brief breather and was back on the court to start the fourth, but it didn’t prevent the Suns’ worst shooting quarter of the season.

“He didn’t have a great fourth quarter, but it’s something just to give us a different look: Instead of riding him the whole third, get him out,” Vogel said. “But ultimately, we didn’t have a good fourth, so we’ll continue to evaluate.”

Part of the problem stems from that initial loss of momentum when Durant rests. But even when he’s been on the floor late in games, the Suns’ offense has stalled out too often. Phoenix is settling for one-action sets that quickly devolve into four guys standing around, watching KD go iso.

Durant is one of the greatest individual scorers the NBA has ever seen. He’s capable of getting a bucket at any time. When you have a player who can not only create looks like this for himself, but knock them down, it’s understandable why the Suns would empower that.

“That was some of our best offense, when Kev was going one-on-one and just slowing things down, giving him space to operate,” Vogel said after the second Lakers loss.

“It’s free-flowing, man, I don’t think we need to complicate it,” Beal agreed. “I think that was K just going into his mode. We have three guys who can really go do that at any time. Granted, down the stretch, we’re still trying to figure it out, but once he has it going, I’m gonna give him the ball. I’m not gonna ask any questions. Every shot he takes is a great shot for me.”

Unfortunately, the strain of carrying the offense — even with Beal back, since he’s still finding his legs — is starting to show for Durant. Not only is he fifth in the NBA in minutes per game, but he’s shooting just 38.8 percent overall and 30.8 percent from 3 in the fourth, while taking nearly a quarter of the Suns’ shot attempts.

“I think if I don’t make shots, that just puts pressure on everybody,” Durant admitted.

That’s a pretty heavy burden to put on a 35-year-old they need healthy for the postseason! It’s no wonder so many of those tough, contested jumpers are coming up short:

Suns’ 4th-quarter offense is too stagnant

That over-reliance is hurting the flow of the offense as well. Multiple Suns players over the last few days have hinted that the ball needs to move more late in games.

“I think a lot of times, we get too slowed down and run through me, run through K,” Beal said. “And that’s great, but we gotta give him better opportunities, put some advantages. We need everybody to be aggressive, ’cause that’s when we’re at our best.”

Talking about his passing ability at practice on Saturday, Jusuf Nurkic dropped a similar nugget.

“Our offense is designed to move the ball more than just isos,” he said. “So hopefully down the stretch we can trust that more.”

Even Drew Eubanks admitted the Suns might be deferring to Durant and Beal too much down the stretch. He cited how, late in the Lakers game, LA trusted the next pass and made the right play, resulting in wide-open looks for Cam Reddish. But to earn that trust, guys have to space the floor well, move off the ball, and make shots.

“Getting a lot of off-ball movement, especially with KD posting up,” Eubanks said. “Really, since the Lakers game to start the year, teams have just been sending a body at him, and sometimes we’ve had success swinging it out and making the right play, and sometimes we’ve thrown the ball away or not executed. So just trusting that next pass has been something we need to get right.”

It’s not that the Suns are incapable. There have been several instances featuring ball and player movement, well-designed sets, and clever actions meant to get Durant and Beal in more favorable position to attack one-on-one matchups. These dribble hand-offs, hammer sets with a pin-in screen and empty-side pick-and-rolls, respectively, are not by accident!

However, as much as the Suns have proven they can generate good looks, they actually have to make them to convince Durant he can take his foot off the gas.

They’re failing to do so at this point. Through 10 games, the Suns shot 7-for-44 on “wide-open” 3s, where the nearest defender was more than six feet away. That’s 15.9 percent! The worst percentage in the entire NBA, despite generating the seventh-most wide-open 3s!

“I keep telling you, it’s a make-or-miss league,” Durant said. “If you make shots, everything looks better. If you miss shots, everything looks worse. That’s just what it is.”

The Suns brought in respectable shooters like Allen, Eric Gordon, Yuta Watanabe and Keita Bates-Diop to make opponents pay for leaving them open. Instead, they haven’t kept opponents honest, and now Jordan Goodwin is taking the second-most shot attempts in the fourth while shooting 24 percent on those looks.

All of this encourages opponents to continue throwing junk defenses at Durant.

“I feel like right now, they feel like they could cheat a little bit and leave guys open and zone up, just play gimmicky a little bit,” Durant said. “But when you got a guy like Devin out there, you gotta be focused on him.”

It’s a “chicken or egg” situation: Does there need to be more movement so guys will hit shots, or do guys need to hit shots so the offense will feel more comfortable moving the ball?

Getting the Suns’ best or second-best player back will help with that conundrum, as will Beal getting fully healthy after tweaking his back again. But until that day comes, Phoenix has to find a way to address this glaring weakness.

“I mean, we’re missing super-max players, man,” Nurkic said. “When you have that level of players and they’re not available, you’re obviously gonna struggle some minutes. Fourth quarters gotta be better, especially getting Brad back and KD playing the way he plays. It’s not like you’re looking for an excuse, but at the same time, we know that our three has gotta be healthy the way we want to play.”

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