Of the 1,230 games that were played over the course of the regular season, 1,205 of them had one team leading after three quarters, with 25 others being tied entering the fourth quarter. The team leading after three quarters went on to win the game 81.7% of the time, as 220 times the team trailing entering the final 12 minutes came back to win the game.
Following Tuesday, there have been 37 games played so far this postseason, all of which had one team leading after three quarters and no ties entering the fourth. The team leading after three quarters has held on to win the game 78.4% of the time, as eight times the team trailing rallied for the win.
None of those 228 losses belong to the Phoenix Suns.
In Game 5 on Tuesday, the top-seeded Suns led 89-78 after three quarters and finished the game with a 112-97 win to take a 3-2 series lead over the eighth-seeded Pelicans. With the win, the Suns improved to 50-0 when leading after three quarters in the regular season and playoffs combined. It is the second-most wins when holding a lead entering the fourth quarter in the shot clock era, topped only by the 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers (57-0).
- Game 1: Suns led 79-71 after three quarters; won the game 110-99
- Game 3: Suns led 81-79 after three quarters; won the game 114-111
- Game 5: Suns led 89-78 after three quarters; won the game 112-97
When we look at the 16 teams that qualified for the postseason, the win percentage when leading after three quarters during the regular season rises by five percentage points – from 81.7% to 86.7%, with four teams holding on for the win over 90 percent of the time: Phoenix, Milwaukee, Memphis and Miami.
2021-22 Regular-Season Standings When Leading After 3 Quarters (Playoff Teams Only)
|New Orleans Pelicans||28||5||0.848|
|Golden State Warriors||44||9||0.830|
We have Ahead/Behind splits available with the team standings dating back to the 2000-01 season. In that time, only three teams have finished the regular season with an unblemished record when leading after three quarters: the 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers (39-0), the 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers (43-0) and the 2021-22 Phoenix Suns (47-0). This season’s Suns squad is the only one that did not include LeBron James.
Both the 2018 Cavs and the 2020 Lakers advanced to the Finals in the same year they posted those unbeaten records, but with different results. In 2018, the Cavs were swept by the Warriors in the final chapter of their epic four-year battle in the NBA Finals. In 2020, the Lakers defeated the Heat in six games to claim the championship in the bubble.
One other key difference between those teams is that the 2020 Lakers maintained their perfect record when leading after three quarters in the playoffs, finishing their Finals run at 57-0, closing out every game when entering the fourth quarter ahead. That 57-0 mark is an NBA record that Phoenix is chasing as they look to return to The Finals for a second straight year.
2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers
Regular Season (52-19* played only 71 games due to the pandemic-shortened season)
- 43-0 when leading after 3 quarters
- 7-16 when trailing after 3 quarters
- 2-3 when tied after 3 quarters
- 14-0 when leading after 3 quarters
- 1-5 when trailing after 3 quarters
- 1-0 when tied after 3 quarters
2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers
Regular Season (50-32)
- 39-0 when leading after 3 quarters
- 8-32 when trailing after 3 quarters
- 3-0 when tied after 3 quarters
- 11-1 when leading after 3 quarters
- 1-9 when trailing after 3 quarters
2021-22 Phoenix Suns
Regular Season (64-18)
- 47-0 when leading after 3 quarters
- 17-17 when trailing after 3 quarters
- 0-1 when tied after 3 quarters
- 3-0 when leading after 3 quarters
- 0-2 when trailing after 3 quarters
How the Suns get it done
Before we get into Phoenix’s incredible fourth-quarter execution, part of maintaining a lead in the final period is building a large advantage through the first three quarters. It always helps to have a margin of error in case the team isn’t perfect in the fourth quarter, you can still maintain the lead.
Over the course of the regular season, the Suns outscored their opponents by a total of 181 points in the first quarter (+2.2 per game), 69 points in the second quarter (+0.8 per game) and 137 points in the third quarter (+1.7 per game). That’s a cumulative advantage of 387 points – or an average lead of 4.7 points – heading into the fourth quarter.
And in case that wasn’t dominant enough, the Suns put up their best numbers of the game in the final 12 minutes. Phoenix led all teams in fourth-quarter points (28.9 per game), assists (6.7 per game) and effective field goal percentage (57.2%). Defensively, the Suns allowed 26.2 points per game and held opponents to a league-low 49.8 effective field goal percentage.
Add that all up and you get a point differential of 221 points (2.7 per game) in the fourth quarter for the Suns. They did have two games go into overtime, but that just led to a higher point differential (+3.5 per game) and efficiency (62.4 true shooting percentage).
The Suns did all of this without having a top 20 fourth-quarter scorer. Chris Paul (5.5 ppg) ranked 23rd in the league in fourth-quarter scoring, while Devin Booker ranked 27th (5.2 ppg). But both players ranked in the top 10 in fourth-quarter point differential with Paul leading the league at plus-3.3 and Booker seventh at plus-2.3 per game.
If the game was still close down the stretch, that is when Phoenix was at its best as the Suns finished with a league-leading 33-9 (0.786) record in games featuring clutch time – score within five points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime. No other team had more than 26 clutch wins in the regular season (Toronto) and no other team won two-thirds of its clutch games (Memphis was closest at 65.6%).
Phoenix’s 33.4 net efficiency rating in clutch time not only led the NBA by 17.5 points per 100 possessions (Milwaukee was second at 15.9), it is the best clutch net rating of any team since the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors (34.1). There were 115 players that attempted at least 25 clutch field goals this season, the Suns had three of the top 10 in terms of field goal percentage: Mikal Bridges (65.6%), Booker (56.9%) and Paul 56.8%).
The challenge the Suns face now is maintaining this level of clutch play in the postseason when the competition level continues to rise with each round, and currently the Suns are without their top offensive weapon in Booker as he is sidelined with a hamstring injury. Following Tuesday’s win, the Suns are one win away from advancing to the conference semifinals and seven wins away from matching the record set by the 2020 Lakers for the most wins when leading after three quarters.