EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns’ poor effort out of gate leads to loss vs. Timberwolves

Jan 13, 2023, 8:35 PM

Anthony Edwards #1 of the Minnesota Timberwolves goes up for a shot past Torrey Craig #0 of the Pho...

Anthony Edwards #1 of the Minnesota Timberwolves goes up for a shot past Torrey Craig #0 of the Phoenix Suns in the first quarter of the game at Target Center on January 13, 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

(Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns didn’t have it in Friday’s 121-116 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, and that has more or less been the defining aspect of most games they play in the 2022-23 season.

By now, you should know what “it” is. Physicality, intent, decisiveness, assertiveness and so on.

You can argue its absence is just as easy to spot on either end, an easier task after Phoenix relocated “it” over the last few games across a shorthanded stretch. We have learned this Suns team is capable of competing in this state, even without Devin Booker (left groin strain), Jae Crowder (not with team), Cam Johnson (right meniscus tear), Chris Paul (right hip soreness), Cam Payne (right foot sprain) and Landry Shamet (right hip soreness).

Minnesota (21-22) scored 24 of its 35 first-quarter points in the paint. The Timberwolves weren’t ravaging the Suns (21-23) by any means, as this was an average effort from them, but that was enough. They led by as many as 17 in the first half and would get that edge as high as 24 in the following half.

Deandre Ayton returned after missing two games because of a left ankle sprain, and those exact qualities we covered earlier are the ones Suns fans have been clamoring for out of him on a night in and night out basis. Friday was one of those games that inspires that type of reaction.

While it was a return from an injury that surely is still nagging at him a bit, Ayton had two other two-game spurts away from the court earlier this season because of ankle sprains and he played well in both return games. A combined 19-for-25 shooting matched the quality of play through the eye test.

His energy was poor defensively to start, the opposite of the type of tone setting you’d want to see from your center in the marquee matchup against Rudy Gobert.

Ayton is a very good defender, one of the best at his position in the league. You wouldn’t know that from this one game after the way the Timberwolves consistently went at him and he did not match it with the correct level of intensity, to say the least.

He deserves credit for remaining aggressive with his shot on a night the Suns needed him to but a 3-of-15 first half really hurt Phoenix and he finished 5-for-18, the spot in his game where it was evident the ankle was still an issue. Ayton is so impactful inside the margins of basketball that he can make up for that type of shooting performance but that part of his game wasn’t there, either.

Late in the first half, Ayton was preparing for a dribble-handoff sequence and lost the ball after a Gobert strip. It was staying in bounds, and Ayton must have expected his teammate Mikal Bridges to run it down, because he didn’t immediately pursue it. Time stood still, long enough for Minnesota’s Jaden McDaniels to realize it was a free ball and he still got it after reacting a second late.

Torrey Craig was furious afterward and who can blame him.

If the Suns’ play to that point didn’t set the tone enough for how the rest of the game was going to go, that lathered it in cement.

Much like the first half, the Timberwolves didn’t have the type of oomph to their play to put this one away when the Suns were giving them the opportunity to. Phoenix just couldn’t stop turning it over, committing 17 of its 19 turnovers through three quarters and was also unable to patch together multiple stops.

Minnesota was bad about shutting the door and bolting it down to the end. The Suns even had a few chances in the mid-to-late fourth quarter, getting within nine and 13 on two separate occasions, with some help from 10-day signing Saben Lee and consistent reserve Damion Lee.

The deficit would even reach six in the last minute, as the Suns sensed their window still being open and stuck with it before coming up short.

Damion Lee was not going to go out like the Suns have in some brutal losses the last six weeks and ensured Minnesota had to somewhat earn this win. He scored a career-high 31 points and 21 of them were in the fourth quarter.

Saben Lee brought some juice off the bounce and just with his overall energy. That helped him stick out through 12 points in 13 minutes.

Minnesota was without Karl-Anthony Towns (right calf strain) and got a team-high 31 points from Anthony Edwards.

The Suns’ 14-of-23 (60.9%) 3-point efficiency and 20-for-24 (83.3%) foul line mark helped ’em stay in it offensively. Mikal Bridges has bounced back from the worst shooting stretch of his career and looks more comfortable on increased volume the last week, putting up 24 points, four rebounds, six assists and three steals on 9-for-14 shooting in 40 minutes.

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