EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Will Suns continue to be Timberwolves’ kryptonite in the playoffs?

Apr 15, 2024, 2:59 PM | Updated: 7:21 pm

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns shoots the ball against Naz Reid #11 of the Minnesota Timberwol...

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns shoots the ball against Naz Reid #11 of the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first quarter at Target Center on April 14, 2024 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

(Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

In a brave, new NBA world built on parity, matchups in the postseason matter more than ever. There is now more of a March Madness element to the playoffs, where seeding has become less relevant and the focus instead turns to stylistic differences that could potentially swing a series.

The Minnesota Timberwolves have been among the Western Conference’s elite all season while the Phoenix Suns have taken the Valley on a roller coaster ride of inconsistency that will quickly make you nauseous with its violent ups and downs.

And yet, the meeting in the first round feels very much like a coin flip.

On paper, Minnesota is a bad matchup.

It possesses the NBA’s best defense, headlined by two tremendous talents on the perimeter in Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels, backed by the best rim protector of his generation in Rudy Gobert.

On offense, the T-Wolves can pressure Phoenix’s poor containment skills on the ball through mammoth ball screens set by the screen assists god Gobert. Edwards is a dynamic two-guard no one has a chance at staying in front of. Phoenix is at its worst when starting center Jusuf Nurkic is off the floor and Minnesota reserve 5 Naz Reid is the favorite for Sixth Man of the Year.

With all that, the Timberwolves are physical. They’ll beat you up. Edwards, McDaniels and Nickeil Alexander-Walker irk top-two options like Devin Booker and Kevin Durant all night. Gobert is waiting for anyone who comes into the paint, Karl-Anthony Towns often defies his softer reputation and Reid is the most explosive reserve frontcourt player in basketball.

All that size should shred Phoenix on the glass, where its undersized lineup gets punished. Matching tones like what Minnesota sets has been a glaring issue for the Suns.

Despite all that, the three contests in the regular season have not been close. The Suns won all three decisively and never let Minnesota get within single digits in the second half. So how real were these results when it comes to translating into the postseason, and what were the takeaways?

How have the Suns dominated the T-Wolves before their first-round playoff matchup?

The first meeting shared similarities to Sunday’s finale. Nine minutes in, the Suns led 32-18. Minnesota took much better care of the ball to hang around over the next few segments before a first-half barrage accompanied by a trio of 3s for Josh Okogie (!) and 13 more bench points via Drew Eubanks (!!!) helped Phoenix take a 22-point lead into halftime that would grow as high as 28 in the third quarter.

A lot of this was possible due to a downhill approach from Booker, who tore up Gobert all night. This was a 133-point Suns outing all without Bradley Beal. Keep an eye on where Grayson Allen is shuffling around in the middle of the floor below and bookmark that for later.

The Suns’ bench outings, the  T-Wolves being on the second game of a back-to-back and Minnesota’s 5-of-27 (18.5%) 3-point shooting make this one easy enough to write off.

The lone bright spot for the Timberwolves was Towns. His aggression off the dribble was constant, something he has to do when teams like Phoenix send him a smaller defender given how agile he is  — like a certain animal commonly serving as a household pet — for his size.

Suns head coach Frank Vogel went as far as labeling it “sleepwalking” in some aspects from the T-Wolves in that game prior to the April 5 rematch, adding anticipation for how they would respond.

Instead, Minnesota was sluggish once more. Its decision-making in the halfcourt was a step slow, and it bottled a few bunches of finishes around the rim. The Suns worked with more pace off that early to a 15-0 start.

Late in the first quarter is when a customary rut for the Suns offense arrived, void of much movement and rhythm to offer the Timberwolves a window to go on a run. But that is when the turnovers compounded and Phoenix collapsing on Edwards mucked everything up.

We’ll get into more specifics about Edwards’ struggles against Phoenix in another piece this week. What’s left to say now is that the Timberwolves become wounded when he’s corralled. He shot 13-for-42 (31%) in the three games, totaling just 43 points.

The ever-reliable Mike Conley might be the X-factor in this entire series, because these last two defeats showed how much of a nothing burger their offense is when Edwards’ inability to playmake at a top level is combined with Reid and Towns being ineffective. Someone has to keep the offense afloat while Edwards has bad stints.

Towns was still nearing his return from a meniscus tear in the second matchup against Phoenix, so having Reid start instead of being out there for the Edwards + bench lineups was a big shift. How can Minnesota open up Reid and Towns? A lot of that has to do with Conley if Edwards can’t, and perhaps some Kyle Anderson sprinkled in as well.

Phoenix’s 10-point lead over a meh offensive stretch carried by good execution on rudimentary sets increased to 19 in the late first half because of this.

To the previous point on Edwards, the trio of Alexander-Walker, Reid and Monte Morris found some success in the mid-third quarter to early fourth quarter. The “success” was only cutting the deficit down to 13 before Phoenix’s key guys ballooned it back to 23.

Still, it’s a patch of the game worth monitoring in the series where the T-Wolves’ superior depth could play a significant role.

Sunday was the most healthy both sides were for the showdown, with a migraine for Eric Gordon making him the only rotation player sitting.

Minnesota was jammed up again early to a ridiculous degree, committing 15 turnovers in the opening 18 minutes. It wanted to open some avenues by taking advantage of the Suns’ switching and the purpose did not match the execution. Edwards and Reid are Minnesota’s two biggest threats off the bounce and combined for 18 turnovers in the last two games.

Phoenix finished 25th this season in opposing turnover percentage (12.8%) and tied for 26th in its own turnover percentage (15%). But this was two straight outings when it was able to force Minnesota into plenty of giveaways. Sunday saw an absurd 35-15 edge for the Suns in points off turnovers.

While the Suns sure went hunting (more on that in a second), they were also knocking down all sorts of shots that make them so dangerous, strengthening a 22-point lead after one quarter.

And much like was prophesied all year long, Phoenix had perhaps its best game of the season attacking mismatches.

Remember that bookmark? Allen on Sunday was being defended by Towns, and Phoenix made sure to involve Allen in that sector of the floor again.

Allen has been fantastic against Minnesota about attacking, whether it’s mismatches like Conley or Towns. His slashing game has been underrated all year.

Royce O’Neale became that guy in moments too, and when Towns was at the 5, Suns guards were ready to shoot off his drop coverage.

And to zoom out further, the risk of Minnesota hedging or trapping on either Beal or Booker is that the Suns can place Towns’ man in the weak-side corner. They can stack the strong side of the floor and force Towns to be the recovery guy. Get used to seeing these types of desperate closeouts from him.

For the Timberwolves offense, Conley took his turn as the lone standout. For years now, he has been one of the NBA’s better pull-up shooters from deep and he got that going on Sunday. They will need his scoring in this series, especially if Edwards can’t get going.

Nurkic started creeping higher on ball screens for Conley, as he was doing for Edwards, which opened up space for Gobert’s 15 points in the third quarter for some more T-Wolves momentum. This was before Beal closed up shop in the fourth quarter with a standout performance we’ll take a closer look at later on.

Overall, a rewatch of the fixtures cemented the most meaningful separator: The Suns are a confident bunch when it sees Timberwolves jerseys and Minnesota looks like a team weighed down by pressure because of it.

The T-Wolves will take nearly a week to course-correct what has gone wrong, namely their organization and care of the ball, but what they will have to counter the most is Phoenix’s belief. Until we see a change in that, this is the Suns’ series to lose.

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