EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns lock in, recover from eventful 3 quarters to slam door shut vs. T-Wolves
If you come up against the Phoenix Suns in the playoffs, if there’s one thing to put on your scouting report, one thing not to do, it’s talk. Raise the stakes with a little jawing. Now, don’t back down or anything, but just don’t escalate the situation unless you deem it absolutely necessary. Trust me.
The Minnesota Timberwolves were served this lesson on Wednesday night in a 125-116 loss.
“I don’t think we were on much of that talking until they started it to be completely honest,” Suns guard Devin Booker said. “It’s a long game. We’ve seen that situation plenty of times before. Seen ’em come out and get hot and get comfortable. And we just stuck with what we do. That’s a scrappy team over there. … We just have to be ready for that. We have to understand what type of game this is going to be and don’t back down from the challenge.”
Before we get to the sequence of events that inspired a spirited Suns response that ran Minnesota (42-32) off its own floor with a 42-point fourth quarter, Phoenix (59-14) recovered from a disconnected start that only Deandre Ayton was able to produce in.
Even on a night when Ayton’s touch was a little off, a 15-of-24 shooting outing, he scored a career-high 35 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. He was a menace on the offensive glass all night and was active in seeking out position to get the ball. His consistent impact was the reason the Suns were able to hang around through an eventful first three quarters.
“I’m happy for him but I’m also pleased as to how he did it,” head coach Monty Williams said of Ayton. “It wasn’t a throw me the ball and let me go get mine. He did it within the scheme of what we do.”
Landry Shamet continued a run of form that is his best as a Sun with 19 points off the bench and a game-high +21, while Booker ended up with 28 points and seven assists after putting on a show in the closing stretches.
That was preceded by a blah first half and a 13-point halftime deficit against a good team playing great basketball at the moment. The intermission was a break that required the Suns to mentally reset following a loopy end to the second quarter.
Wednesday was one of those evenings when both teams were upset at the whistle from the officials. This vibe was mildly percolating in the game until 50.6 seconds remaining in the second quarter when it exploded.
Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns dunked over the Suns’ Jae Crowder. Towns celebrated by giving Crowder the “too small” gesture and then proceeded to talk about it all the way down the floor.
Crowder, as you would expect, got right into Towns’ business on the Suns’ following possession off the ball as Phoenix’s offensive set got underway. There was too much contact for the officials’ liking, so play was stopped and the two were given technical fouls.
— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) March 24, 2022
On the next play, Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch got a technical foul. Off the inbounds, Booker drew a foul on Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards and Edwards’ disapproval earned him his own technical foul. A different official, however, stepped in to say that Mikal Bridges had traveled with the ball before it got to Booker for that foul and they rescinded Edwards’ technical.
Two plays later, Crowder attempted a 3-pointer just before the halftime buzzer and on the way down made contact with Patrick Beverley’s head, which earned Crowder a Flagrant 1 following a review.
That sequence that occurred over roughly five real-time minutes clearly indicated the referees were losing control of the game, so they responded how they normally do in these situations by tightening up the whistle as much as possible.
This is relevant because it resulted in a bizarre, stagnant third quarter that saw three more technical fouls dished out. Neither team was able to get a grasp on some rhythm. Despite this, the Suns somehow scrapped together an eight-point edge to be within five.
With the Suns trailing by one and 8:35 to go, the swinging point in the game came via an offensive foul drawn by Shamet on Towns for Towns’ fifth foul. It was upgraded to a Flagrant 1, and after Towns went to sit, Shamet hit both free throws and then a midrange jump shot for a huge 4-0 swing and the Suns’ first lead of the game.
From there, it was rather clear that the Suns had the type of fortitude that was necessary after that topsy turvy, unorthodox opening three quarters and the Timberwolves did the opposite by spiraling.
Phoenix thrives off that type of energy in a game, sensing the blood in the water against an opponent that brought it on themselves to bring a little bit of extra spice to the matchup. If you want it to be like that, the Suns are going to go there right along with you and then turn it up even a few more notches to dare you to match their relentlessness, or else.
The most famous example, of course, is the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James showing up the Suns late in Game 3 of last year’s first-round matchup before the Suns won three straight to send the Lakers home.
The version of then-Lakers center Andre Drummond imitating James on the bench was Towns motioning to the crowd that he was in Crowder’s head following the double technical.
Towns went on to score three points in the second half while Phoenix emphatically ended the game.
With 5:15 left and the Suns up one, we got perhaps our best “bad man” performance of this season, the nickname we’ve placed on Booker around these parts for the level he takes his game to in its closing acts.
Booker assisted an Ayton dunk via a challenging pocket pass and then converted a difficult, physical finish at the rim through Towns. Thirty seconds later, he caught an inbounds pass from 30 feet out, and just decided to pull up to drain it.
Next time down, Booker was trapped and saw Bridges open under the basket on the other side of the floor but had no passing angle. So, he just created one, lobbing it off the backboard to Bridges which was unjustly not ruled as an assist.
Minnesota’s Malik Beasley broke the Timberwolves’ drought with a 3 before Booker racked up a hockey assist off a trap by finding Ayton who found a wide-open Shamet to trade 3s.
As the Timberwolves ran through their next set, Beasley dropped a pass and Booker scooped up the loose ball to emphatically call curtains on the night with a powerful jam in transition.
The 14-3 run in six straight possessions over 2:48 all from Booker put the Suns up 12 and evaporated any ounce of momentum the Timberwolves had left.
Here is the 14-3 Suns run on 6 straight possessions that was all Devin Booker to close out the game. Tough pocket pass, tougher finish, 30-footer, pass off the glass to Bridges, hockey assist for a Shamet 3 and the jam/dagger. Bad man. https://t.co/eKih7S57QG pic.twitter.com/VqXj20hi3o
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) March 24, 2022