How the Suns shut down Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards so far this season

Apr 17, 2024, 8:11 AM | Updated: 8:50 pm

PHOENIX — When it comes to individual attributes of an opponent, the combination that should give the Phoenix Suns the most trouble is a hyper-athletic guard who, while being a three-level scorer, prefers to get to the rim. That is Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards.

The 22-year-old is going to make his first All-NBA team this year and his 25.9 points per game that tied for 11th leaguewide are via a very good 31% of his shots coming at the basket. There, he converts 69% of the time, per Cleaning the Glass.

That’s where he wants to go because the jumper has been OK but not outstanding. Edwards also relies on a midrange game (38% of his shots) that gets a below-average 39% knockdown rate while he was fine from 3 at 35.9%. He’s incredibly skilled and can drop 40 on jumpers alone, but the consistency is coming in the future — it’s not there yet.

Phoenix has no one on the roster capable of defending a guard like him. Kevin Durant puts up very good resistance on larger wings, while Jusuf Nurkic matches physicality against star bigs. Ball-handlers of Edwards’ make and mold are troublesome.

Grayson Allen and Bradley Beal have taken that assignment over the last few months and as much as they’ve impressed given their reputations, they won’t individually affect much of what Edwards does in this series.

But much like how the matchup on paper has defied the regular season results, Phoenix has stifled Edwards in three meetings. Edwards is 13-for-42 (31%) versus the Suns this year and his point totals have been 13, 17 and 13 with an alarming nine turnovers in the two recent contests this month. He wasn’t able to make up for it at the free-throw line, attempting a total of 15.

Why is that? For whatever reason, the Suns play their best team defense inside the scheme used on Edwards.

Suns have shelled off the paint against Anthony Edwards

Phoenix uses the closest defenders to restrict driving lanes and contain angles. On ball screens, the big is almost always going to meet Edwards at the level of the screen, offering immediate resistance. From there, the low man holds a lot of responsibility by covering the basket. Oftentimes that man is Durant.

Before we get to the film, here are some screenshots to visualize that a bit more. Notice how many Suns players are either in the paint or close by.

That’s a lot of traffic. Suns head coach Frank Vogel loved this gap integrity, to borrow a football term, after the April 5 win, calling it a night-and-day difference from the start of the season to then. It was pretty darn good on Sunday, too.

Let’s take a closer look.

On top of where the bodies are, you’ll notice how good the Suns are with their active hands. If Edwards wants to maraud down that center lane of the court, Phoenix’s paws are getting in there.

Players like Durant, Nurkic, Eric Gordon, Bradley Beal and Royce O’Neale have shown this year they’ve got underrated swipes built for this type of funnel. (A brief side note: Edwards believes he’s getting fouled on most of these. He’s probably not getting those calls in the postseason either but keep an eye on the whistle he’s getting.)

“The four guys off the ball that aren’t guarding him have done a great job of being active in the games we’ve played them and showing presence to discourage the drive or muck it up a little bit, get hands in there and deflections,” Allen said Tuesday. “And then they have good shooters, too, so still having the urgency to get out to guys and not give up those open 3s.”

In this possession from Sunday, Minnesota pushes the ball off a miss. Nickeil Alexander-Walker gets Suns center Drew Eubanks cross-matched onto him before kicking it out to Edwards on a reset.

Eubanks stays put as you can hear both O’Neale and Devin Booker calling out for Eubanks to do so. If Edwards gets by Durant, he will be met by Eubanks not at the basket but on that side of the paint. Edwards makes the right play and Jaden McDaniels fails to convert on a tough middy contained well by Booker.

Watch those turnovers back and you’ll see a shooter open as the collapse comes in and Edwards arrives around the free-throw line. Edwards’ tempo through these attacks is too often a gear high and his pacing as a No. 1 option will get better in a few years to fully take advantage of how teams defend him.

To that point, Edwards told reporters after Sunday’s loss he has to make the read “one beat earlier.” Making that adjustment will determine how effective he can be in this series.

Is the Minnesota supporting cast open on purpose? Is this a spacing issue? For the latter, it doesn’t seem so based on the quality of shooting out there.

Mike Conley, Naz Reid and Karl-Anthony Towns all took at least five 3s a game and shot above 40%. Alexander-Walker isn’t far behind at 39.1% on 4.1 triples per game and one of the two players riding the backup point guard carousel — Jordan McLaughlin (1.6 3PA/G, 47.2%) or Monte Morris (2.2 3PA/G, 42.4%) — knock ’em down when open.

The only problem on volume has been McDaniels (3.5 3PA/G, 33.5%), while Kyle Anderson and Rudy Gobert don’t stretch the floor. Unsurprisingly, that trio on the floor together has yielded a 102.6 offensive rating, far from Minnesota’s 17th-ranked 114.6 mark for the season.

Coach Chris Finch doesn’t put that threesome out there often, only 264 minutes, and when Edwards is out there with McDaniels and Gobert, it’s a fine 114.4 offensive rating across a team-high 1,333 minutes.

And if you’re thinking the two-big look is the culprit, those Gobert-Towns minutes produce a terrific 118.0 offensive rating in 1,279 minutes.

If the evidence points toward anything, it’s that Edwards has to make strides as a playmaker.

Here’s a great example of a shot that has to go in for the Timberwolves. Edwards rounds the corner to find Eubanks waiting and Booker is there for nail help, leaving Reid open.

If Minnesota’s shooters outside of Edwards continue to shoot under 30% from deep like they did against the Suns in the regular season, Phoenix can over-help to that degree all series and more than live with the results.

To go a step further, this is a peek at the majority of Edwards’ buckets in the halfcourt. Two are him slicing through multiple defenders after he evaporates the on-ball guy, one is a mistake by giving him room to shoot coming around a screen and only one is him getting set up by a teammate.

The Suns limiting turnovers is a huge key to this series regardless but especially because it will let Edwards use the open court to find his rhythm. Even just off misses, they have to get back and have someone put their body on Edwards early.

In the non-unicorn region, Edwards is the most impressive athlete in the NBA.

If there was one Suns player that has to limit the turnovers, it’s Durant. Edwards will be spending a quality amount of time defending him.

With the aggression and over-helping of Phoenix’s scheme, Edwards has only managed 11 assists to 10 turnovers in 99 minutes despite all the bodies magnetically pulled in his direction. Not good!

Two assists that maximize the punishment of the scheme are to Gobert, the main beneficiary of all this attention. If the extra Suns defender finds a tag on Gobert, the benefit is to the shooter in the corner or wing. And the last Conley 3 is one Booker presumably wants back after he initially clogs the space at the free-throw line before losing Conley for a half-second.

That leaping pass to Gobert on the baseline is the one Edwards finds one beat early like he brought up. He’s leaping to fire that off a step before he’s inside the teeth of the defense.

What the Timberwolves clearly have to establish more of in this series is the two-man game between Conley and Gobert, plus the driving of Reid and Towns. The resume for Conley and Gobert speaks for itself, while we covered Towns’ off-the-bounce juice already.

Reid could swing this series. He wasn’t as inefficient as Edwards in this matchup but his point totals for the regular season were 13, eight and 10 for a guy who is capable of 20-plus any night.

Reid’s evolved 3-point shot is such a huge part of his development because it opens up the best part of his game. He has the most sauce of any big in basketball off the bounce outside of Nikola Jokic.

Reid is armed with a crafty handle and capable footwork to finish with either hand. Watch him work.

Due to the scheme on Edwards and Minnesota’s size, this will almost certainly be a Eubanks series for Phoenix, given his quick feet and ability to move around for the more aggressive gameplans. His minutes have been an adventure this year and his counterpart is Reid, a player the Suns don’t really have anyone to match up with physically.

Reid and Towns together can provide Edwards the most room possible while also contributing as slashers in a way Minnesota’s offense desperately needs.

“Yeah, they’re great drivers,” Vogel said Tuesday. “That’s something we are talking about a lot: their ability to put the ball on the floor and the power that they have with how they drive the basketball is a challenge. Gap activity, low man help, doing it as a team.”

For the uninitiated on the T-Wolves, Gobert’s postseasons usually end with him getting played off the floor. This is a massive series for Towns, who in playoff games has a pattern of dramatically tail-spinning into bad fouls and other terrible decisions. If that repeats itself for either guy, Minnesota can turn to a very good player in a snap.

In the end, it will all come back to Edwards and how much he can turn into Superman like he has a whole lot this regular season. It would be unwise to pin any expectations of Edwards’ issues on inexperience.

Edwards in 11 career playoff games is averaging 28.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.5 blocks and 2.1 turnovers per game on a crazy impressive 60.3% true shooting percentage.

Looking at players in NBA history to post 25 points a night in the playoffs across at least 10 appearances while 21 years old or younger, it’s LeBron James and Luka Doncic, per Stathead. That’s it. James’ true shooting percentage was 55.7% and Doncic’s 58.2% trails Edwards as well.

He’s that dude.

In addition, you know what I bet pisses Edwards off? The fact that despite how in many eyes he’s either the best shooting guard on the planet or will soon hold that title, he has a record of 1-11 against Booker in his career, the guy preventing him from getting that status.

This series should be awesome for several reasons, and watching Edwards try to stamp his playoff passport beyond Round 1 for the first time against his two-guard counterpart is at the top of the list.


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