EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns’ twin duo of Cam Johnson, Mikal Bridges take down Timberwolves

Nov 1, 2022, 11:53 PM | Updated: Nov 2, 2022, 8:20 am

Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) reaches for a loose ball against the Minnesota Timberwolves...

Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) reaches for a loose ball against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — No Deandre Ayton (left ankle sprain). No Devin Booker in crunch time (foul trouble). No Chris Paul nuclear takeover mode activated just yet.

And despite the Phoenix Suns’ starters checking back into a two-point game with 8:35 left after establishing an 18-point lead over the Minnesota Timberwolves a quarter prior, it was still a relative breeze for the Suns thanks to Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson in a 116-107 win on Tuesday night.

The Twins combined for 48 points and were the Suns’ two highest scorers on the evening. That is the vision behind expanded offensive roles for them, and the hope is they can channel this type of scoring in the postseason to make Phoenix’s offensive attack more diverse and more difficult to guard.

“It gives us balance when those guys are playing that way,” head coach Monty Williams said. “And it wasn’t forced. It wasn’t like they were pounding the ball and jacking up shots. They were slashing, they were spacing. I thought Mikal, his slashing tonight was just phenomenal.”

Cam Johnson was the X-factor on Tuesday due to his matchup and he responded with 29 points on 10-of-17 shooting and seven 3-pointers, plus three assists, three steals and a block.

Last season, forward Jae Crowder revealed that what the Suns call the individual target of their offensive gameplans: the pigeon. Most commonly a big man who struggles to move their feet and/or doesn’t have the complexities of ball screen defense down, Phoenix (6-1) is often ruthless when it hammers away at the weak spot of a defense.

Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns was the pigeon. Playing alongside center Rudy Gobert forces him to defend wings depending on the matchup, and Tuesday’s mark was Johnson.

Johnson’s off-ball movement, an area of the game he is great at given his shooting prowess in this department from college, was the focus to start the game.

When Johnson was asked if it felt like he was back in his Carolina blue, he lit up with a smile and said, “Yeah, little bit. Felt good, felt good for sure.”

Halfway through the first quarter, the Timberwolves (4-4) began switching, a nod the Suns had won that initial battle.

“I think we all know too, just our mindset when [whatever] big is on ’em, we just kind of be more aggressive and give (them) more looks and we know it’s just tough on them,” Bridges said. “No knock on KAT or Gobert — just it’s tough.”

They would be victorious in the war too.

At the open of the second half with Phoenix up seven, every set went at Towns, and Phoenix scored on five of its first six possessions. The last was a Johnson 3 that gave the fourth-year forward his new season high of 20 points.

Here’s all five. Watch where Towns is on each one.

“That’s what happens when you go two bigs,” Bridges said of testing Towns as much as possible. “They grow up in the paint and it’s tough for them to be on perimeter so we got guys that play on the perimeter their whole life. So when you see things like that, just put ’em in actions, things they’re not kind of comfortable in and just try and take advantage.”

That run forced Minnesota to take a timeout, and off a miss for its possession, Devin Booker drilled a triple to extend the Suns’ lead to 17.

There has to be an equal trade-off to make it work and the Timberwolves couldn’t find anything close to it. When another Booker 3 brought on the aforementioned game-high 18-point edge with 5:08 left in the third quarter, Towns was 3-of-10 for eight points and Gobert had managed four free throw conversions for all his points on an 0-for-1 shooting line.

The Suns were occasionally flashing doubles at Towns when the Timberwolves wanted to treat Johnson as the pigeon, and the spacing issues with Gobert were evident. Minnesota was never able to get either of them going, even when they weren’t on the floor together.

“You want to make it hard on them,” Johnson said of it. “They’re playing two bigs so they can have an advantage inside, advantage on the glass, post-ups, stuff like that. So we want to make it hard on them to not get to what they wanted. If they think KAT is a little bigger than me and they try to post him up, we try to not let that be easy.

“And I think we did a good job of tonight. And then offensively, just moving him, keeping him in actions, keeping the bigs occupied.”

While Minnesota will need to establish a base foundation of continuity to build off of with the starters, it has seen lots of success this season when future star Anthony Edwards and the team’s reserves get minutes together.

That continued on Tuesday. From that Booker trey until the Suns’ starters all had to come back in at 8:35 remaining, Minnesota went on a 29-13 run. The majority of it came when Edwards was out there with either backup guard Jordan McLaughlin or backup guard Jaylen Nowell.

Those two have great chemistry with Edwards — as we wait to see if D’Angelo Russell can find it — and they buried an all-bench lineup Williams rolled with to give the group extended minutes together. That is something to help their own chemistry, but it’s going to result in some highs and lows, and after a lot of highs six games in, No. 7 was a low.

The swing point in the game actually came from a Bridges turnover. He turned down a semi-open 3 and it resulted in a turnover, but his twin had his back on a huge swipe of Edwards in transition.

Paul made a heads-up play on the rotation for a steal and Johnson got located as the trailer for a 3.

Bridges said as soon as he went to throw the pass he knew he was in trouble and was more than thankful for the backup.

“I was just like, ‘Alright, happy that didn’t go down as a bucket. Kind of saved me a little bit,'” he said with a grin.

After three points for Minnesota, Bridges had a great, tough take to the rim to draw a foul for two free throws. Paul got a middy the next time down and suddenly the Suns created breathing room with an eight-point lead.

Bridges and Johnson scored seven of the Suns’ next nine points after that.

A lot of what we’re talking about with the Suns’ scheme trails back to Phoenix’s awesome ability to execute unique gameplans specific to the matchup, oftentimes crafted that morning at shootaround. This group has now been doing that for over two years through countless situations, including six playoff series and one NBA Finals, so the continuity in that area is massive.

“Huge,” Johnson said when asked about it. “Man.”

Johnson’s answer then detailed one defensive play he and Bridges made together for this steal below during that twin stretch.

This might look like just an insane play by Bridges with his freakishly long arms. But as Johnson described himself, he’s serving as the low man near the basket and covering Bridges’ man on a cut for his twin. The communication from Johnson told Bridges to stay out and Bridges was already instantaneously staying in his spot while knowing Johnson was leaving his man open.

“He didn’t have to turn and look where the guy I was previously guarding was,” Johnson said. “He just knew the spot he needed to be in.”

Phoenix was terrific defensively again, continuing a sample size of now seven games that should ease any concern of Crowder’s absence hurting the Suns there. That was the consistent support the Suns needed to make sequences like that last one from The Twins be the backbreaker to put it at 105-91 with a little over three minutes remaining.

Bridges contributed 19 points (7-for-10) with three rebounds, four assists, a steal and a block.

For those who were worried about Johnson’s initial beginnings as a starter, that’s now 16, 19 and 29 points in his last three games. All of those set a new season high.

Booker had what will be one of his worst shooting nights of the year, 6-for-18, and Edwards deserves a hefty amount of credit for the shift he put in defensively to affect that 33.3%. This is Year 8 for Booker and I haven’t seen five better individual defensive efforts on him than that. Yes, Edwards’ potential is scary high offensively, but those locked in on Tuesday saw why it’s more about his two-way upside more than anything.

Booker ended up with 18 points and Paul scored eight of his 15 points in the fourth quarter to go along with 12 assists and three steals.

Towns’ box score wound up looking nice in the end, a line of 24 points (9-of-18), 10 rebounds and seven assists but he was a net negative on the floor given how Phoenix went at his defense. Gobert didn’t get another shot up the rest of the way and only ended up at seven points and nine rebounds, which is where starting center Bismack Biyombo and backup center Jock Landale should get a few pats on the back for containing a monster rebounder in Gobert.

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