EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

How Suns match up with the 4 Western Conference play-in teams

Apr 11, 2022, 11:15 AM | Updated: Sep 29, 2022, 6:51 am

Due to the NBA play-in tournament that determines the last two playoff spots in each conference, the Phoenix Suns won’t know their opponent for the first round of the 2022 NBA Playoffs until Friday night.

The loser between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Clippers will host the winner between the New Orleans Pelicans and San Antonio Spurs, and the victor that night will be the eighth and final Western Conference postseason team.

It’s four potential matchups the Suns need to prepare for in what will surely be a busy week for the staff.

Here’s a brief review of how Phoenix’s games this season against those teams went and a few impressions of how a playoff series with each of ’em could go.

Minnesota Timberwolves

(AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

In-season meetings (3-0)

This Timberwolves squad has a way of playing the Suns tough.

A slog of a basketball game on Nov. 15 at Target Center full of fouls, free throws and turnovers saw the Suns come out on top 99-96 after they just executed better in crunch time. Shocking, I know.

Matchup No. 2 in Phoenix did not see Minnesota’s stingy defense muck up the game again. The Suns were tremendous offensively, hitting 20 3s, reaching 36 assists and getting seven players in double figures to win 134-124 despite missing seven players.

What I will refer to as the “Too Small Game” was the last of the regular season matchup between these two teams, and that should ring a bell for ya. Karl-Anthony Towns’ dunk on Jae Crowder and gesturing/celebrating afterward ignited a mean and furious second half from the Suns to drop 74 of their 125 points. This one was full of technical fouls and established a mini-rivalry of sorts that would very much develop even further in a playoff series.

The big picture

From an initial point of observation, Minnesota is going to be a challenging matchup for anyone based on a few different factors of its team DNA coming together.

The Timberwolves’ roster is full of athleticism and length, which it uses to create the second-most turnovers in the NBA this season, 16.2% of their opponents’ possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. On the other side of the ball, Minnesota finished tied for sixth in offensive rating.

Towns is perhaps the most underrated player in the NBA. He’s a flat-out superstar offensively. 2020 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards is capable of scoring 30+ any night and had a strong sophomore season. Sprinkle in D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley as the complementary options and there’s your offensive firepower.

Jarred Vanderbilt, Jaden McDaniels and Patrick Beverley provide that aforementioned defensive havoc, along with Edwards, who has taken it upon hismelf to be a plus defender earlier in his career than we could have expected.

That’s a recipe to force a tough six or seven games out of a high seed.

But with that in mind, this is Minnesota’s first real go at postseason basketball as a group. And as individuals, outside of one first-round exit each for Towns and Russell, 14 games for Beasley with the Denver Nuggets in 2019 and Beverley’s 59 playoff games make up the majority of its experience.

It would be a huge continuity advantage to the Suns, and matchup-wise, they’ve got Deandre Ayton to throw on Towns. Edwards would have his hands full with Mikal Bridges and Chris Paul leads the Suns’ offense that finished with the NBA’s second-best turnover percentage in Monty Williams’ barrage of movement.

The Timberwolves are intriguing but I don’t see any holes the Suns can’t plug.

Los Angeles Clippers

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

In-season meetings (2-2)

Not a terribly useful sample to take much from here.

Paul George missed the initial three showdowns and the Suns rested four starters for the fourth.

The first on Dec. 13 was a Phoenix loss that Devin Booker and Ayton didn’t play in, but the response for a Jan. 6 win was fueled by 21 offensive rebounds in a game neither team shot well in.

Feb. 16 featured maybe my favorite play of the regular season, an awesome Booker effort to close out on a shooter before sprinting full court to finish a lob with under four minutes left that swung the game in the Suns’ favor. April 6 was “The Ish Wainright Game” when the Suns’ third-string players made the Clippers sweat before finishing off Phoenix in the last three minutes after the deficit for Phoenix went as high as 39 in the third quarter.

The big picture

The Clippers are the obvious pick for the toughest draw. George is back and the additions of Norman Powell and Robert Covington at the trade deadline are new wrinkles compared to last year’s Western Conference Finals.

For the 43-game stretch George missed, though, the Clippers didn’t really have anyone significant step up and find some confidence that could carry over to the first round. Reggie Jackson shot 40%. Luke Kennard averaged 11 points per game and Marcus Morris was at a fine 16.3 on 43.5% shooting.

The depth beyond George is where Powell will need to have a real impact to lift this offense to become a significant enough threat to the Suns. In last year’s series, Jackson posted 20.3 points a night. Could he be the second banana again? Is Powell capable of becoming enough of a threat to enter the conversation as a potential candidate, if not?

I don’t see it. What I do, however, is how Ty Lue would throw his infamous mid-series adjustments in and make this series as much of a pain as possible for Phoenix. The Clippers showed in last year’s series how they manage to just keep hanging around in games, making it a chore to put them away.

And to go back to those six games the Suns won four of to advance, they needed Booker’s 40-point triple-double, Cam Payne’s game of his life AND the Valley-Oop, Ayton’s incredible Game 4 and Paul’s masterful closing act in Game 6.

It wouldn’t be nearly that hard this time around but it would still be an arduous task, even in five games. And then there’s this whole speculation around Kawhi Leonard potentially returning this season.

Like I said, obvious pick.

New Orleans Pelicans

(AP Photo/Matt York)

In-season meetings (3-1)

Another dose of games to not glean much from. The Pelicans’ big-time in-season acquisition C.J. McCollum was still in Portland for the Suns’ first two wins in the meetings.

The third included McCollum but not Paul during the beginning of the Suns’ adjustment without the Point God, while a victory in the last matchup on March 15 was still a bit of a grind before the Suns pulled away in the fourth quarter.

The big picture

Here’s the sleeper pick!

Head coach Willie Green, Williams’ lead assistant the two seasons prior to this one, won the tactical battle between these two sides in the regular season. He knows ths Suns’ system better than just about anyone who is not currently with Phoenix. The Pelicans beat the Suns in late February partially because of Green’s gameplan to defend Point Book with Paul injured.

And then the Suns scored 30+ in all four quarters three weeks later to hang 131 on New Orleans’ mediocre defense.

The X-factor here is how quickly the Pelicans have come on since McCollum’s arrival. He’s averaged 24.3 points per game on 49.3% shooting since arriving, and in those 28 games since McCollum made his debut, New Orleans is tied for eighth in offensive rating and tied for 13th in defensive rating. Not too shabby!

To go back to two themes from our section on Minnesota: McCollum, Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas present serious challenges to a defense. Bridges on McCollum is easy enough but who takes the large and lanky Ingram? Wings of that size have always been an issue for this particular Suns group (like George last postseason) and we’ve seen in the past how Valanciunas is a handful for Ayton. Rookie Herb Jones, a stellar defender for his experience level, would at least be a slight nuisance for Booker and Paul to deal with as well. Devonte’ Graham could get hot any night. Larry Nance Jr. is good.

Like the Timberwolves, though, the Suns have such a large advantage when it comes to how they flow together as a team, and McCollum has been with the Pelicans for two months. Zion Williamson getting into the mix would be a boost, but is he coming off the bench? Starting? How does he play with McCollum and Valanciunas, who have yet to play with Williamson?

Young, key fixtures of the rotation like Jones, Jose Alvarado, Jaxson Hayes, Naji Marshall and Trey Murphy III are just getting used to legit minutes on a decent NBA team too. That’s a lot of potential food for Paul and company to target.

I feel safe in labeling this as the other opponent that would give the Suns the most fits, but in the way we talk about raw prospects at the top of the draft. High ceiling, low floor.

San Antonio Spurs

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

In-season meetings (4-0)

The Suns had a handful of wins this season that were more difficult than they needed to be thanks to a hard-working opposition that stuck with it despite a huge gap in talent. Because the thing is, there is so much talent in the league right now that even the teams near the bottom like San Antonio can beat you any night if it has energy and execution, and the Spurs always did against Phoenix.

Nov. 22 was a second game of a back-to-back that had to be earned after the Spurs cut the Suns’ lead to five with six minutes remaining before a 10-0 run in 108 seconds. Two weeks later on Jan. 6, the game was tied at 88 at the six-minute mark until Paul dominated crunch time.

Jan. 17 was again close and a 48-point outing from Booker was the deciding factor to bring on a fourth-quarter blowout. San Antonio was able to keep being annoying and make the Suns be deserved winners on Jan. 30. A lineup change in the fourth quarter of Wainright at the 5 inspired a 36-19 comeback in the final frame.

The big picture

I know that Gregg Popovich is the boogeyman around these parts. I also encourage you to ease any anxiety he would bring you by taking a look at this Spurs roster.

Dejounte Murray deserved his All-Star nod. Can he take over a playoff series, though? His supporting cast of Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Lonnie Walker IV, Jakob Poeltl and Josh Richardson are all the types of players most teams want. Just as the fourth-to-ninth-best player.

We’re at that point in the standings where we’re not really talking about that good of a basketball team. San Antonio is an average 17th in offense and 16th in defense. The only stats that jump out are the Spurs are tied for the second-best turnover percentage offensively, allow the third-fewest 3s per game and have the third-best field goal percentage allowed at the rim. Those could translate to playoff success if this team was more capable.

And again, like Minnesota, this is a young and unproven core of players when it comes to playoff basketball. Looking at their four leaders in minutes, Johnson and Vassell would be debuting while Murray got 16 games under his belt before he turned 22 in two different seasons of the last Spurs postseasons. Poeltl, meanwhile, went twice with the Toronto Raptors before starting all seven games of San Antonio’s first-round exit in 2019.

All four of these series could be sweeps given how much better the Suns have been than everyone else this year and this series would have the highest probability of brooms.

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