Clutch Suns Keep Killing It

By: Jay Dieffenbach

The secret is out.

Suns fans know about it – and embrace it. Their team is made up of players who are very serious about finishing an assignment.

They revel in pressure situations. They’re killer serious.

In basketball parlance, a killer is one who tirelessly pursues and achieves a goal while having no problem ruthlessly finishing the assignment.

Among the greatest ever, of course, were Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

This generation of the NBA’s leading killers – or clutch performers -- could be these Phoenix Suns, led by Chris Paul and Bryant’s understudy, Devin Booker.

Two games and one practice over a March weekend served to display the identity of these Suns, who are almost maniacally focused on winning the franchise’s first NBA title.

After Phoenix’s disappointing 117-112 defeat at home March 11, coach Monty Williams – a “killer” coach who learned from legends Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich -- set the bar again, aiming to be clear about getting it right.

“We didn’t do a good job in the first half, and then the second half, they put pressure on us and we didn’t handle it well tonight, so that’s something we need to learn from,” Williams said before dropping a personal challenge to those players who cared to read between the lines.

“And then we have to be emotionally more regulated. Technical fouls and things of that nature costing us momentum and we’re giving points away when we don’t need to. That’s something we have to be a lot better at.”

Translation: We have the Lakers coming to town. I won’t tolerate another spate of mental mistakes.


Williams sets the tone while Booker, in echoing Williams’ sentiments, added perhaps the most important ingredient to complement the clutch: accountability. Booker said he did not handle Toronto’s pressure in the manner expected of a leader.

“I had a few turnovers that were costly, for them to get out in transition and get some easy ones,” he said before turning his focus to preparing for the Lakers. “But, just another moment where I got to look at film, and see the spots and what was open.

“That’s the name of the game for us. We never want to lose two in a row and we have another tough opponent coming in here Sunday. We just want to protect and home court and do what we’re supposed to do.”

The “opponent” -- a failed chemistry experiment stumbling around in Lakers uniforms -- was left without a name, but Booker was already planning a special way to put his foot on the LA’s collective throat.

And that’s just what happened in front of the Suns’ 22nd consecutive capacity crowd at Footprint Center on Sunday night. It was a public execution from the jump, with the Suns putting up a season-high 48 first-quarter points and bringing down the hammer by the end of the third quarter.

A few fans clad in Lakers jerseys exiting the arena half-heartedly referenced the fact that their team “still has the rings,” but Suns supporters know the past is the past; the future may be right now.


To put a fine point on what the Suns are doing, we offer up “clutch” stats entering games of March 18.

(Clutch time is defined as the last five minutes of a game when a team is leading or trailing by five points or fewer.)

The NBA’s best team? It’s more than subjective, it is supported by plenty of evidence.

The Suns were a complete package:

  • 1st in offensive efficiency (128.8)

  • 1st in defensive efficiency (98.6)

  • 1st in net rating (+30.1, which is 15.1 higher than second place team in clutch net rating)

  • 1st in clutch time record (27-6)

  • 1st in clutch FG% (56.6), the highest by any team since play-by-play was introduced in 1996-97 (previous high was 53.7 by the 08-09 Cavs)

  • 2nd in clutch 3-point FG% (43.8)

  • 1st in opponent clutch FG% (37.3)

  • 2nd in opponent PPG in the clutch (6.6)

Following the blowout of the Lakers, Williams underscored the team dynamic by pointing out the success of the Suns’ rebounding and defense – two areas that are primarily based on effort and execution (hard to get away from that “killer” theme).

It’s not just Booker and the sidelined Chris Paul, either. All the primary contributors this season have long ago bought in to the clutch/killer concept.

"I thought the first group set the tone and it just gave everybody a lot of confidence that we were going to have one of those nights."

- Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns | Head Coach

Williams cited the high level of focus with examples following the Lakers game.

"And you look at the offensive numbers, and DA (Deandre Ayton), 23 and 16 (points and rebounds), he could have easily had a 20-20 night. Book (Devin Booker) and Cam (Payne) with 21 assists, two turnovers, that’s really efficient.”

“And then you can just go down the list, Mikal (Bridges) just kept making timely shots and his defense was really good. And Jae (Crowder), guarding LeBron the way that he guards him, staying in front of LeBron and being sound and communicating when we had to switch.”

“I thought the first group set the tone and it just gave everybody a lot of confidence that we were going to have one of those nights."

There have been a staggering number of “those nights” this season.

With a league-best 56-14 mark, the Suns continue to enjoy their best start to any season. If the team can win 63 games, it will surpass the franchise’s all-time mark for victories in a season shared by the 1992-93 and 2004-05 teams.

With numbers such as these, it would come as a huge disappointment were the Suns to fall short of the NBA Finals.

Since play-by-play began being tracked in the 1996-97 season and advanced stats were introduced, the only teams to rank first in offensive, defensive and net rating in the clutch have been the 2015-16 Warriors, 2012-13 Heat, 2010-11 Mavericks.

The Heat and Mavericks won titles in those particular seasons; the 2015-16 Warriors reached the Finals, but lost to Cleveland.

The rare air certainly doesn’t escape the players, but the “Mamba Mentality” mix of these Suns would seem to have the team well-positioned to step on the throats of its Western Conference rivals and return to the Finals.

The players? Individually, each of the key rotation pieces brandishes his own form of clutch. Suns players who, as of March 10, ranked in the top-10 in total clutch +/- are:

  • Chris Paul – 1st (+99)

  • Mikal Bridges – 3rd (+76)

  • Devin Booker – 4th (+68)

  • Jae Crowder – 5th (+63)

  • Deandre Ayton – 8th (+47)

Since the 1996-97 season, the only teams to have players hold the top-four spots in total clutch +/- for a season are the 2012-13 Heat (LeBron, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen and Shane Battier, who ranked fifth) and the 2000-01 Jazz (John Starks, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Bryon Russell).

Entering Friday (as of March 18):

  • Ayton was shooting 83.3 FG% (15-of-18) in the clutch this season, the best FG% by any player in the clutch this season with a minimum 10 shot attempts.

  • Booker was shooting 57.5 FG% (23-of-40) in the clutch this season, the best FG% by any player in the clutch this season with a minimum 35 shot attempts.

  • Cam Johnson was shooting 63.6% on 3-point attempts (7-of-11) in the clutch this season, the best 3-point % in the clutch this season with a minimum 10 3-point attempts .


Williams had no doubts about his team’s professional approach following the Toronto loss, and was clearly pleased with the effort at practice the following day; the urgency coupled with the evident IQ of a championship favorite.

"And (Saturday’s practice) wasn’t, like, intense for intense sake, it was intense with a purpose,” Williams said following Sunday night’s blowout of LA. “So, you could feel it yesterday, like we’re going to play well (Sunday).”

Booker, who played all 12 minutes of Sunday’s first quarter (12 points, six assists), referenced the motivation that has defined this season.

“It was really big, it was a good start for us,” Booker said of the Suns’ 48-point opening-quarter assault. “After last game – I told you, man, we don’t like losing two games in a row so we just wanted to come with a lot of energy and effort, and we did that to start the game.”

He may as well have added: We stepped on them, like killers.

The game was just one of 82 – and likely many more.

Sixty-three wins would be nice but that wouldn’t bring this group of clutch stars any satisfaction.

Nope, not until a dream sometime in June is realized.