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April 18, 2006

Can't Win the Close Ones

The Phoenix Suns haven't played a meaningful game in over a week, having wrapped up their playoff position as the second seed in the West. The Portland Trailblazers have blazed a trail to the worst record in the NBA (yep, their record is even more execrable than that of the New York Knicks, despite playing in a division that's almost as bad as the Knicks'). Yet Wednesday's season finale between Portland and Phoenix's second string will be must-see TV, because, according to SportsCenter, the Suns will have their last shot to avoid making ignominious history: Becoming the first team to go an entire season without winning a game decided by three points or less.

Stunningly, of the Suns' 53 wins, not one has come by fewer than four points. Seven of their 28 losses have come by such a narrow margin. You could say the Suns have this record by technicality, as they won an overtime game against Chicago by nine points; they also lost a triple overtime game to the aforementioned Knicks by seven, and neither counts in their 0-7 record in close games. But with 53 wins to work with, you'd think at least one would have come by a small margin.

Naturally, SportsCenter spun this feat to imply that the Suns can't win the close ones. Perhaps instead, Phoenix is really good at hitting meaningless shots (including free throws: The shoot a league-best 80.7% from the line) to extend the margin of close games at the end. Or perhaps Phoenix is really, really good, and only bad luck kept them from a 60-win season. That's how bad records in one-run games in baseball are usually spun by statsheads: A team that's well below .500 in close games is better than its record would suggest, because it was the victim of bad luck (or, sometimes, bad relief pitching). The Portland game won't tell us whether that's the case, but the playoffs will, because Phoenix isn't likely to repeatedly blow out teams like the Lakers, Clippers, and Nuggets.

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