EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns must find more space on offense in Game 2 vs. Timberwolves

Apr 22, 2024, 2:23 PM | Updated: 2:49 pm

MINNEAPOLIS — A 25-point loss to begin the series won’t often be attached to optimism for the rest of the way. But the Phoenix Suns had plenty of smaller, correctable elements to find advantages against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Saturday’s Game 1.

We won’t dive in on things like rebounding better, taking care of the ball more, sound defensive rotations and generating more 3s. That comes with the territory.

The easiest example in the larger scheme of the game would be how Anthony Edwards arrived at the white-hot temperature he reached in the late third quarter.

In the regular season, Edwards really only got free against Phoenix in transition. Here are his four baskets in the first half Saturday.

Three of these are Suns errors: losing him as a secondary trailer, losing him on the left wing so he could get a free driving lane and then Devin Booker’s attempt at going over the screen allowing Edwards a layup (off a great pass).

In the third quarter, Edwards then made two great plays for his first two field goals.

But his next three were all when he was given multiple dribbles to go at a single defender inside the 3-point line.

These are all tough shots. But Edwards was hot, and Phoenix surely should have at the very least sent a help defender over to swipe instead of giving him room to operate.

“You just gotta read the game and see how he’s playing it,” Suns head coach Frank Vogel said of Edwards. “If certain players get into a zone, you have to shut their water off and it requires some certain double-teams. We’ve had a lot of discussions about that.”

By then, the game was over. Edwards had his home crowd in the palm of his hand.

“He just got it going, making midrange shots, some over a contest,” Suns forward Kevin Durant said. “Once you see those go in, you start bombing 3s and confidence is through the roof.”

If Edwards is rolling and Minnesota knocks down enough 3s, the Suns’ offense will have to soar in order to have a chance in this series.

With Edwards being Edwards (star player, elite playoff performer) and Minnesota being Minnesota (best 3P% outside garbage time this season), it’s a difficult trade-off.

Even with Edwards’ six turnovers when the Suns executed well in the halfcourt, five of his six assists were to a 3-point shooter. That’s tough.

Suns hope to get Devin Booker going in Game 2 vs. T-Wolves

The offensive improvement starts and ends with Booker playing to his caliber. On offense, the Suns need to free him up. When Booker matched up against Rudy Gobert in the past, it was like watching a Food Network two-hour barbecue special. He has largely toasted Gobert, exposing the weaknesses inside the best rim protector of this generation.

Booker could never really get there on Saturday because of the stupendous work put in by Jaden McDaniels, a lock for one of the league’s All-Defense spots. McDaniels was attached to Booker all afternoon, covering the ground necessary while the bigs came high.

“He’s a good defender, he has a lot of length and he’s physical and they play hard together,” Booker said of McDaniels. “They have a good defensive team.”

Nickeil Alexander-Walker was tremendous in Game 1, too, and is another potent defender. Check out this denial and recovery.

Once Booker attempted to get downhill, there were two or three guys in his airspace.

Booker is good enough to overcome some of that, but it begins with the Suns putting him in the best positions to succeed. Ball-screen actions were the ticket to quality offense on Saturday and Phoenix was splitting the lead guard duties with Bradley Beal and Booker.

That was a development we discussed in this space back when Beal was declared the “point guard” of the team in January. The balance there is a slippery slope because Booker is the better floor general of the two.

Keep an eye on how often those two are running the show moving forward. McDaniels was picking up Booker fullcourt, which is part of the issue, but a better plan to find Booker space has to be located.

Beyond that, again, Booker just has to be better. He’s proven in the past that all-world defenders, defenses and schemes only matter so much against him. They mattered a lot on Saturday.

More Nurkic and more small ball at the same time

There are two offensive tweaks outside of just Booker that would help.

In the offseason, the discussion surrounding Jusuf Nurkic’s role for the postseason was largely swirling around how he might not play much in certain matchups. But ever since the last six months showed his importance on the team, that changed, and this draw in the first round is a matchup Phoenix needs Nurkic for, regardless.

With the pressure on Booker and Beal from Minnesota’s perimeter swarmers, the space was there for Nurkic to either score or playmake.

Nurkic racked up four easy buckets in the first 17 minutes of the game before only finding one look around the basket the rest of the game, which resulted in free throws for him.

There were also some great passes by Nurkic as the hub with all this real estate to work around because Minnesota was “top-locking” defensively, meaning it was preventing the dribble-handoff links or a pass to the perimeter, offering up back-cuts in exchange.

The Suns rarely found Nurkic in short-roll situations, something it should seek out more with high pick-and-roll in Game 2. This is money.

This is what the “run your stuff!” campaign all season long has been preaching. When the Suns run their offense and get the movement going, good things generally happen. In this series, at least for now with how Minnesota is scheming, that is space for Nurkic. He’s going to miss some bunnies and this could spike up his turnovers but he’s the guy benefiting the most from the ways the T-Wolves are bogging down Phoenix’s offense.

When Nurkic was off the floor, Phoenix generally went small. While backup center Drew Eubanks played nine minutes, the Suns for one of the first times this year employed these lineups outside of a last-ditch effort.

The results in the plus-minus might not have felt great at first but the tape showed there is a path to sustainable success that would make a significant difference going forward.

When Phoenix first turned to it with a little over two minutes to go in the first half, Minnesota instantly countered the counter with a zone, featuring Gobert tip-toeing in and out of the paint. The first look was a good one, albeit nearly turned over by Durant before one of Royce O’Neale’s signature pass-to-screen transitions opened up Eric Gordon.

This later led to a Grayson Allen drive past Gobert that got him two free throws.

“I think we just have to be aware of it quicker,” Booker said of Minnesota’s zone. “We’ve done good with zone defense throughout the whole year so I’m not too worried about it.”

The next time down, Phoenix’s plan was O’Neale screening one of the two top defenders of the zone, forcing McDaniels to come over and clear the way for ball rotations to the corner, once again dragging Gobert over. But O’Neale rolled, giving Allen nowhere to pass to benefit from the drive. Allen should have just kept his dribble alive and he did not.

Durant then pushed off the ensuing Minnesota make, attempting to beat the zone before it got set, and he turned it over as well. Phoenix tried the same deal with O’Neale’s screen the next possession, and Durant found a 1-on-1 drive that got free throws.

When Nurkic was subbed out in the mid-third quarter, it was O’Neale taking his place. Minnesota initially went man, with Gobert actually defending Durant as he brought the ball up (!). A ghost screen arrived from Allen with Karl-Anthony Towns on him (!!). It’s the type of situation and action that perfectly suits matchup hunting.

And then Allen sprained his ankle.

Phoenix went right back to a big and it wasn’t until the 9:47 mark the small lineup was deployed again. The same zone returned and all it took for the Suns was some side-to-side ball movement to get Gobert running from corner to corner, opening up Durant for 3.

A Durant turnover that was almost completely an unforced error was followed by a Durant drive on Gobert from the corner that bounced off Gobert. You’ll take that. After a sideline out of bounds play didn’t go well, Durant brought it up and ran two-man action with O’Neale to force Gobert to switch, leading to a wide-open O’Neale 3.

Gordon getting stripped by Naz Reid on a drive with no one under the basket followed, a situation the Suns will happily play back. And then Beal got Gobert switched onto him so a containing Reid had too much to do, wildly closing out to O’Neale for another clean look at a triple.

Phoenix kept the pace up, taking two quick 3s off misses in semi-transition before Booker drew a foul off the ball for free throws. Minnesota then tried the zone with Towns at the 5 and I’m guessing it’s the last time we see it. (This is nearly a Booker turnover, to be fair).

The first halfcourt look to follow was Durant getting stripped by Gobert and then Edwards, but this was seconds after O’Neale turned down an open 3 he should have taken. The Suns called a timeout there and pulled the starters.

A few takeaways from that: If Minnesota dares to go man again, Phoenix should get whoever Gobert is guarding as the screener, preferably with the rim pressure of Booker or Beal on the ball out up way high. When the zone comes, Durant in the corner yielded good results. And obviously, the Suns just can’t turn the ball over. All of the giveaways were self-inflicted. Everything else was solid.

Allen’s health is a big part of not only those lineups but the whole offense. He’s questionable for Game 2 and not having proper spacing on the floor at all times like Phoenix mostly does currently would free up Minnesota’s defense to a concerning degree.

This is not a hot fix that will suddenly turn Phoenix into the better team. It has several other issues to figure out, mainly on defense. But the Suns’ path to still being a hyper-lethal offensive team against the NBA’s best defense is there, despite how daunting the outstanding T-Wolves performance on Saturday might have seemed.

An unfortunate reaction to how Game 1 went in other facets would be to turn away from small ball because of how Minnesota dominated the glass. But the Timberwolves’ large edge in second-chance points was via a 16-2 advantage in the first half and none of those 16 points came in the two minutes Phoenix played without a center. It did not correlate.

If Phoenix can get more use out of Nurkic to gain more direct benefits from its guard play and then maintain proper pace and movement more easily by going small, it should be a much different offensive outing on Tuesday.

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