EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Who will win trade-off of Timberwolves’ size vs. Suns’ space?

Apr 19, 2024, 10:37 AM

PHOENIX — As the saying goes, styles make fights. And the matchup in the first round of the NBA playoffs that best defines that saying is one between the Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves.

In a league trending toward the importance of spacing and versatility, Minnesota bet big that size still matters and has championship viability, trading for Rudy Gobert two summers ago to form a jumbo frontcourt with him and Karl-Anthony Towns. It doubled down by re-signing reserve 5 Naz Reid last summer, the favorite for Sixth Man of the Year.

The Suns had their hands tied this past offseason in terms of rebuilding the roster around Devin Booker and Kevin Durant. The best they could do, which has proven to be an admirable effort all things considered, was a rotation that essentially doesn’t have a traditional forward-sized player beyond Durant and that starts three guards, none of whom are point guards. Minnesota has 6-foot-9 Jaden McDaniels as its small forward, with Kyle Anderson at that size off the bench, too.

There are trade-offs for both sides. Booker has attacked Gobert’s ball screen coverage quite well over the years, particularly this season.

“He has the paint on the lock,” Booker said of Gobert on Wednesday. “(We need) the most actions we can do to keep him away from just protecting their paint at all costs.”

And Phoenix can just make those bigs run around, right? Simple enough.

Not so much, says Booker.

“Ideally, that’s what you want to do but they’ve been dealing with that all season,” he noted. “They know how to build a defense around it. People have tried that type of offense against them and they’ve been successful so everything’s just gonna be emphasized.”

The game-to-game adjustments that make NBA postseason basketball what it is will likely stay centralized around each team’s effort to maximize its edge around the concepts attacking mismatches.

The Timberwolves will want to keep their defensive shape intact well enough to not only keep Gobert on the floor as much as possible but funnel the ball-handlers and openings toward him. The Suns will want to reach the 100th percentile of floor spacing to make those openings too large, putting Gobert into impossible predicaments.

If anything is brought up to Booker about the offense, he has almost always responded with spacing as the key this year, so that goes toward everyone being in the absolute right spot to keep everything freed up.

(Side note: Will the Suns finally use small-ball lineups outside of break-glass-in-case-of-emergency situations? You’d only need one hand to count the number of times Phoenix did so in the regular season, missing out on time for that unit to grow and see what it looks like when the house isn’t on fire.)

The Timberwolves created the NBA’s best defense around Gobert by allowing the second-most midrange shots, per Cleaning the Glass. The Suns attempt the second-most shots from there and shot 47.4%, also ranked second. Booker’s efficiency was at 50%, just behind Durant’s 51%, two stellar marks. Those two shouldn’t have trouble getting off a good look to see one go down for maintaining rhythm.

“We call him a spy, right?” Suns guard Bradley Beal said of Gobert’s role. “He’s like a defensive spy, like watching (Baltimore Ravens quarterback) Lamar Jackson wherever he goes on the field, he kind of does that for their defense. Wherever the ball is, he’s watching the ball (and) making sure it doesn’t get into the paint. Forces us to a lot of tough, contested shots with their long defenders.”

Offensively, Minnesota will look to improve on its usage of Reid and Towns in mismatches, where Phoenix has no one to physically defend them with that type of size at the 4 spot and shut down scoring opportunities off the dribble. Phoenix will look to remain consistent with how it is has limited Anthony Edwards to live with the other results while also clogging up the driving lanes for those two guys too.

One side is going to get more out of this stylistic clash.

Much of what we’ve covered in other previews has been what is advantageous for the Suns. But here are a few concerning team stats for Phoenix, via Cleaning the Glass, which excludes garbage time.

While Minnesota is also a team like Phoenix that turns the ball over a lot, ranking 23rd in turnover percentage compared to the Suns’ No. 25 position, the T-Wolves are fifth in the number of turnovers they force compared to Phoenix’s 24th-best efforts. Those numbers suggest the Suns are going to lose the turnover battle rather handily this series.

The way they can make up for that is their defensive scheme that bottles up Edwards, which led to a whole lot of Minnesota giveaways and had it off-balance to the point where it was committing the same brain-fart turnovers we also see from the Suns. But if Edwards can figure out the passes on the defense — he and his head coach have discussed it at length coming into the series — the Timberwolves had the best 3-point percentage in the league at 39.6%. That includes the top conversion rate on non-corner 3s of 38.8%, with the league average being 36.4%.

We know how difficult it has been for Phoenix to get up a proper amount of 3s this year, but wouldn’t you know it, the Suns were tied with the Timberwolves in their percentage of total field goal attempts being 3s at 35%, tied for 19th leaguewide. Keep a close eye on not only who is getting up more but the quality of those looks. The Suns were fifth in 3P% so it’s not like they don’t have the arsenal to match.

Phoenix will rely on making up some ground at the free-throw line, as it has done all year.

The Suns led the NBA in free-throw rate. But how about since the NBA’s both silent and incredibly noticeable midseason shift in officiating, which has cut down free throws? Yahoo! Sports’ Tom Haberstroh deduced a sharp drop around Feb. 10, and a few weeks later, Phoenix from the start of March on finished tied for 20th in free-throw rate.

A playoff whistle is unpredictable, especially this year. The games get much more physical, and typically the officials adjust to that by not calling a whole lot of what was standard procedure in the regular season. Clippers guard James Harden will have a befuddled look on his face at least a dozen times in April because his hands-in-the-cookie-jar-trick does not yield free throws.

This season, however, has seen that increase in freedom for defenders to use their body and hands. Then again, a referee crew can tighten up at a moment’s notice and start blowing the whistle on everything.

Minnesota is the type of defensive-minded team with the personnel to benefit from this if the postseason intensity is considered legal defense.

“They make it very tough,” Beal said. “Then you got KAT in there with his length and size, you got Naz and Kyle Anderson and all these guys. These guys are 6-9 and above so they make it very tough, they make you shoot those tough contested shots and Rudy’s just a byproduct of it all.”

Durant has been getting beat up all year. Teams are hounding him off the ball. A bulkier, smaller defender gets under Durant and puts their weight on him while he bumps his way through a screening action to get to work.

Last postseason across an 11-game sample size, Durant shot between 9-16 free throws in six of them. The other five fixtures were 2-7 free tosses. What kind of whistle he receives and the ability Phoenix has (or doesn’t have) to use one of its biggest strengths will be a big-time swing in the series.

Ultimately, this series is perfect for the Suns because it will tell us exactly who they are and have been this season. The table is set with an opponent they have established success against and can find rather fundamental advantages. If they execute and remain consistent, avoiding high degrees of slippage that have remained a constant all season, this is their series.

Unfortunately for them, that’s a no-go in the postseason. A few possessions decide these games. That’s it.

Ninety seconds of mistakes is all it can take. There hasn’t been a concrete stretch over Phoenix’s 82 games when it stayed solid, only reaching very good efforts across 30-36 minutes of a game. The full 48 has been an unachievable goal outside of just a blip or two on the radar.

The wait for proof that the required consistency exists for this team has run out. It’s either time for a blind leap of faith or a believe-it-when-you-see-it call in regards to the series.

It’s the latter for me — Timberwolves in six — and we’re in for one hell of a run if that’s wrong. Because that’ll mean this Suns team has at long last figured it all out.

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