Suns walloped by haymaker 1st punch from Timberwolves in Game 1

Apr 20, 2024, 7:15 PM | Updated: Apr 21, 2024, 12:02 pm

MINNEAPOLIS — Well that was one hell of a first punch.

The Minnesota Timberwolves completely dictated the terms of how Saturday’s Game 1 against the Phoenix Suns was going to go. Phoenix stood no chance, falling 120-95.

From the start of this game, the amount of physicality was evident, exactly what Minnesota wanted as an ultra-aggressive, large squad that has the NBA’s top defense.

Phoenix did well in matching that early on, despite the result indicating otherwise. The Suns’ defense was using extra contact as well with some tough shot-making and drives against Minnesota’s.

The problem was Phoenix couldn’t locate a solid offensive rhythm inside that style and it gave up a 16-2 advantage on second-chance points in the first half.

The eye test would have told you the Suns were down 20-plus at the half. Kevin Durant was both marvelous in this game and the only Sun that had it going, carrying the offense. Phoenix kept fouling the second quarter, unable to pinpoint where the playoff whistle was on the “what’s a foul exactly?” spectrum, and that slowed the game down considerably.

“That’s what kind of dug our hole,” Suns guard Bradley Beal said. “We kept fouling, putting them on the free-throw line, which slows the game down and allows Rudy (Gobert) to set up camp in the paint and allows (Karl-Anthony Towns) to get set on his guys. … That’s something we’ll be more cognizant of.”

Phoenix couldn’t find that pace, and when Minnesota did, it saw success. Devin Booker correctly pointed out postgame how the Timberwolves were the better team in transition as well, which can’t happen for Phoenix.

The deficit, however, was only 10 at halftime.

But the keyword for Phoenix all year has been slippage and boy did it choose the wrong time to start sliding.

After the Suns cut it to four a little over five minutes into the third quarter via a Beal pull-up jumper with 7:03 to go, they were outscored 21-5 the rest of the quarter. All five Phoenix points came at the foul line, meaning Beal’s bucket was the last Suns field goal of the quarter.

Anthony Edwards was still turning the ball over like he did in the regular season for this matchup, a large part of Phoenix going 3-0 in rather dominant fashion, but when 1-on-1 moments materialized he was making shots. Edwards took that slight rhythm into the second half when he really started cooking, a flurry that was also the game’s closing ceremonies.

Across that run, Edwards scored or assisted on 17 of those 21 points.

Beal spotlighted how all it took was two makes from Edwards in that third quarter for him to be completely in sync, which is a credit to Edwards and also a problem for Phoenix.

“He was just way too comfortable in the third, it just kind of opened up pandora’s box from there,” Beal said. “You can’t let a superstar get going off two shots. It’s already over with then, trying to stop a hot man at that point. We have to be better collectively accepting that challenge.”

Edwards was jawing at Durant, completely in his element and looking very much like the elite playoff performer he has been in his short NBA career thus far.

Minnesota was up 20 entering the fourth quarter and the Suns couldn’t manufacture enough of a physical response to slow the momentum down so Edwards could be more contained. He assisted on back-to-back triples before knocking down his own to get the Timberwolves ahead by 25 with 8:08 remaining.

Edwards finished with 33 points (14-for-24), nine rebounds, six assists, two steals and six turnovers.

This was a giant moment for the Twin Cities and the team, something you could sense in the arena. The Timberwolves made the Western Conference Finals in 2004 before missing the playoffs 13 straight years. They’ve been back three times since, and all of those runs ended in the first round.

Minnesota was without Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid last year, also winning just 42 games instead of the 56 this season. It’s the best group the T-Wolves have had in nearly two decades and this core’s first real crack at making a deep run.

Towns’ inconsistencies in the last two playoff trips made him the player this was the biggest series for out of anyone.

After returning from a meniscus tear just eight days ago and a little over a month following surgery, he looked great. Towns attacked his mismatches, particularly carrying a portion of the second quarter, and it amounted to 19 points, seven rebounds, four assists and a steal.

Acquiring Gobert two summers ago essentially meant the Timberwolves were building their team around him, and after he was a combined -68 against the Suns in the regular season, Gobert finished +19 with 14 points, 16 rebounds and two assists. That and the Edwards efficiency/playmaking are the two largest indicators from the individual stat sheets that Phoenix is in trouble.

Gobert’s success will largely be determined by Booker’s own or the lack of it.

Booker never found a section of this game to get his fingerprints on. He shot 5-of-16 for 18 points, two rebounds, five assists and a steal. He roasted Gobert’s coverages in the regular season for years and Phoenix will require that Booker to win this series.

“We all just need to adjust to the playoff physicality. They’re being ultra physical with me and I had three early fouls. … Just trying to find a rhythm from there,” Booker said.

“We gotta do a better job of getting him open. … They’ve got some perimeter defenders on that team so we could be more creative getting him open,” Suns head coach Frank Vogel said.

Durant’s 31 points and seven rebounds on 11-of-17 shooting was some tremendous shot-making. Minnesota switched up the matchups, placing Towns on Durant, so the Suns looked for that early and often.

What that did, though, was bog the game down and the T-Wolves surely knew Durant having his way with Towns (and others as a result of him finding a flow) was worth that movement decrease for Phoenix’s offense. It produced just 16 assists, the lowest total for the Suns in the regular season.

“I think we were more or less matchup hunting tonight and just trying to take advantage of them hiding guys. … They were trying to avoid the small mismatches with (Mike) Conley as much as possible, we have to be a lot better,” Beal said. “In the first quarter we were really good at moving bodies and moving the ball and even in the beginning of the third.”

Grayson Allen rolled his right ankle in the third quarter and did not return. He can’t miss time for Phoenix in any series, but in this one especially, Eric Gordon is going to have some issues. Gordon was trying (and failing) to get his driving game going and is going to really struggle with on-ball defending any of Minnesota’s perimeter options.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker (18 points) and Reid (12 points) provided the T-Wolves great minutes off the bench. It was a given their depth was going to pop more in this series than the regular season and that was the case on Saturday. Kyle Anderson (right hip pointer) got hurt in this game and was ruled out after playing just five minutes.

The turnover battle was even, 15-15, with the Suns besting points off turnovers 23-19. But a 13-3 edge for Minnesota in offensive rebounds helped it attempt 13 more shots and the Suns only had three more free-throw attempts.

A one-game negative sample the Suns will feel OK about is a 11-of-25 (44%) mark around the rim, over 25% lower than Minnesota’s finishing. Some of this was Gobert but there were a handful of missed bunnies too that will go down later in the series.

“We just gotta be more focused and finish those plays and I think we will,” Durant said.

This is how the Timberwolves responded to the one-sided results of the regular season. Let’s see how the Suns respond to that on Tuesday.

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Suns walloped by haymaker 1st punch from Timberwolves in Game 1