The Phoenix Suns are lucky that bad teams aren’t going to be in the playoffs.
Jokes aside, Wednesday’s 112-111 loss to the Orlando Magic was the Suns’ eighth out of a total of 14 this season that was against a team below .500. They have now lost to four of the five worst teams in the NBA: the 15-29 Magic, 15-27 Washington Wizards, 12-31 Detroit Pistons and 10-34 Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Suns are aware of the problem and trying to fix it. And there are worse problems to have, as the defeat drops the Suns to a still very strong 29-14. They show up against the best and have some huge wins this season against marquee teams. Outside of their three-game break for postponed games, they’ve won every game after those eight losses.
With that being said, it’s still an issue, and three of those came with crunch-time woes, including Wednesday. The Suns scored only 20 points in the fourth quarter.
“We just didn’t put a full game together,” point guard Chris Paul said. “I think we came out with the right energy, the right pace, but we didn’t sustain it so give them credit. This a game we shoulda won. Everybody was in the locker room, sitting there, like, ‘What the hell is going on?’”
Head coach Monty Williams said he was not frustrated and liked the fight from his team on the second game of a back-to-back after flying across the country.
Shooting guard Devin Booker gave the Magic credit but put it simply.
“You can blame it on the second game of a back-to-back, you can blame it on whatever but we just have to be better,” he said.
In the first half, the Magic converted on 10 three-pointers against a Suns defensive performance that was below their typical standard.
To open the third quarter, there was a Suns jolt out of halftime, as you’d expect. Chris Paul led the charge of a 13-2 run.
Orlando, though, just kept finding a way to put the ball in the basket. The Magic played a sound offensive game overall and it got them to a tie ball game with four minutes left because there was no real push offensively by Phoenix.
From there, it was some challenging looks to fall for the Magic.
Magic point guard Michael Carter-Williams rebounded his own miss for an and-one, center Nikola Vucevic nailed a tough fallaway, plus made one free throw, and guard Evan Fournier drilled two different difficult looks.
If that doesn’t sound like enough to win the game, aka 10 points in the last four minutes, well, it was.
This was the Suns’ closing four minutes: Suns center Deandre Ayton didn’t get a hook shot to go down he thought he was fouled on, Booker missed a 3 and then Ayton committed an offensive foul on a screen. After Paul scored four straight points doing his usual midrange work, forward Mikal Bridges missed an open three-pointer in the corner with 90 seconds left and the Suns down one.
Following a Magic miss, Paul couldn’t make his signature midrange fallaway like before. Fournier’s well-contested make from the midrange was matched by a Jae Crowder 3, and after free throw trips for Vucevic and Booker, it was a terrific finish by Fournier over Ayton to give the Magic back the lead. After all that, the Suns trailed by one again with six seconds left.
Williams’ play call out of the timeout was stifled by the Magic, who doubled Booker out of his motion to get free. The ball was inbounded to Ayton and he nearly turned it over before the ball was knocked out of bounds to give the Suns another play to run. That was just a lob in the post to Booker and he didn’t have enough real estate to work with, missing a near-impossible layin.
“There’s a lot of possessions before that lead to it,” Booker said of the last play. “I think it shouldn’t have even been that close of a game to begin with.”
Phoenix shot 7-of-23 (30.4%) in the last 12 minutes and 11-of-33 (33.3%) from deep on the night overall.
Three Suns starters had at least 20 points: Booker (25), Paul (23) and Ayton (21). The All-Star backcourt had seven assists each while all three combined to shoot 17-for-17 from the foul line.
Torrey Craig provided another good spark off the bench, scoring in double digits for his second straight game with 10 points plus eight rebounds in 19 minutes. The rest of the Suns bench, however, combined for 10 points.
The All-Star Vucevic had a game-high 27 points and 14 rebounds. Fournier added 21 points of his own.
Those are the types of losses that get to Paul the most. Given his extreme prowess in the clutch and Booker’s shot-making ability in front of a great defense, not many teams should be able to match the Suns in the clutch.
But now after Wednesday’s loss, the Suns are 10-11 in games that had a score within five points with under five minutes left.
“I’m more frustrated that we lost a close one,” Paul said. “I think I said it earlier in the season: I try to pride myself, our team on finding ways to win games down the stretch. This a tough one.”
For the Suns’ sake, they should hope for plenty more games that meet those qualifiers so they can iron some things out before the postseason.