EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns unravel in usual fashion, T-Wolves take commanding 2-0 lead

Apr 23, 2024, 9:43 PM | Updated: 11:17 pm

MINNEAPOLIS — The Phoenix Suns did much better in many categories of Game 2 on Tuesday against the Minnesota Timberwolves and none of that matters because they can’t get out of their own damn way.

Phoenix fixed a lot in a mucked up, ugly game before its usual cartoon-level slippage segment of the contest arrived and was the difference in 105-93 loss.

The Suns ran much better offense early, using more off-ball motion to create advantageous matchups for multiple players while shifting the geometry of the floor to give Minnesota’s elite defense less of a chance to stymie them before getting to a good look.

Phoenix’s halfcourt defense was great over that time too, staying connected and gang-rebounding when the job was nearly done.

But Phoenix’s maddening, self-inflicted errors with the basketball were there all game long. The 20 Suns turnovers resulted in 31 Minnesota points while the 14 the Suns generated yielded just two points.

Just like the second quarter of Game 1, after it was a clear point of emphasis, Phoenix started fouling too much in the third quarter. This slowed the game down even more and greatly benefitted Minnesota.

The Suns were up 63-60 before committing three fouls in 90 seconds to put the T-Wolves in the bonus at the 4:32 mark. Their offense died and Minnesota ended the quarter on an 18-8 run.

Phoenix has been particularly woeful this year at plugging the holes on the leaking ship until the rescue party arrives. That party is never coming, though.

It is one of the many reasons having three star scorers should be a great strength of the team and it’s instead a weakness. That falls directly on Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal.

The Suns roster, including their head coach, was incensed at the officiating, complaining far beyond the norm we’ve come to expect from NBA teams. They were clearly mentally detached from the game once that spectacle unfolded.

T-Wolves star Anthony Edwards was on the bench to begin the final frame and Minnesota erupted with a 15-5 run that was frighteningly fundamental. Across 10:31, it was 33-13 Timberwolves, a change from the Suns being up three to down 17.

Suns head coach Frank Vogel agreed with the assessment above in regards to what went right and wrong.

“We gotta handle their pressure better,” he said of the turnovers, also noting this was a defensive performance he would take again in another game. “I thought we found some things in the first half that worked really well in terms of our movement and pass-and-cut offense. We didn’t sustain it when they went on runs. We didn’t stay locked into that plan. Had too many lost possessions because of it.”

So, how does that happen?

“Lost focus.”

Why?

“First time being together, not handling our adversity in that second half,” Vogel said.

Beal was asked what overcoming adversity in the playoffs comes down to.

“Mental toughness,” he said.

Booker on two separate occurrences emphasized communication and accountability.

As far as the snowball effect in the second half, Beal elaborated on why he thinks that happens.

“It’s just a flow of the game. … It just happens,” Beal said. “Just the flow of it, when things are getting crazy everybody wants to make a play and kind of play rushed and it leads to turnovers, it leads to being kind of unorganized.”

When it comes to the officiating, Vogel has been critical of the referees in the past instead of pointing the blame more toward his team but he did not go there on Tuesday.

“We can’t let the refs distract our focus,” Vogel said. “The refs didn’t beat us, the T-Wolves did. … We have to be locked in and we can’t let that distract our focus. When they’re scoring on us and we’re not getting the right stops, we can’t not be organized and we had too many possessions like that.”

A question was being presented to Vogel about composure, and once he heard that word he interrupted and said, “We didn’t keep our composure.”

Booker, who fouled out and has had the most constant dialogue with the officials out of anyone, said “his frustration is within the team” when his objections to the refs were brought up.

Booker (6-for-13), Durant (6-for-15) and Beal (6-for-17) combined to shoot 18-for-45 (40%). Phoenix has now played two games in Minnesota and only one of them featured a member of that trio rising to the occasion. That was Durant on Saturday, and then in Game 2, it’s a chore to try to pick out who the best Sun was in this one.

Even more exasperating is Minnesota’s three best players on Tuesday not including Edwards or Karl-Anthony Towns.

Across a sluggish first half when the Suns contained Edwards and Towns remained in foul trouble, Mike Conley and Jaden McDaniels lifted the T-Wolves up. Conley finished with 18 points, four rebounds, four assists and two steals while McDaniels scored a game-high (!) 25 points to go with eight rebounds, three assists and a steal.

Rudy Gobert was really, really good again with 18 points, nine rebounds, two assists, three steals and a block.

Grayson Allen played through his right ankle sprain before tweaking it again in the third quarter. He was ruled out and the chances of him missing time went way up with the re-aggravation.

The much-needed boost for Jusuf Nurkic’s involvement arrived, in both expected and unexpected ways. His work as the hub of the offense with how much positive offense Phoenix generated through off-ball motion was helpful while the one player to bog down the offense with isolation was, of all people, him.

Multiple touches came with Nurkic bizarrely going at Gobert. There’s a concerning mix present of a lack of awareness that it is bad offense and also seemingly an inability from his coaches/teammates to prevent him from doing that. It’s greatly damanged the impact had on the basketball game, which he still did on Tuesday thanks to that playmaking and an great effort on the glass.

Minnesota managed this win without Kyle Anderson (right hip pointer), a five-point night for Naz Reid and the type of Towns performance that has plagued him over his playoff career. His third foul in the second quarter and fourth foul in the third quarter were both the easiest calls for the officials to make all night. Towns was baffled somehow by the decisions and the foul trouble limited him to 12 points and eight rebounds.

Edwards shot 3-of-12 with 15 points, eight assists, three steals and three turnovers. He found the reads off his extra attention and his assist total easily could have been in the low-to-mid teens but corralling his scoring was a success for the Suns.

On Saturday, Phoenix rebounded just 12.5% of its misses, an offensive rebounding percentage that is at the third percentile for Cleaning the Glass. Comparatively, Minnesota’s 39.5% is in the 97th percentile. Toss in Phoenix’s 42.9% shooting at the rim (third percentile) and Minnesota’s 68% (67th percentile) and this screams one-game sample size, nothing to overreact to.

At the same time, they were two numbers that do correlate to the T-Wolves’ size advantage and the curiosity was there to see if either persisted.

In Game 2, the Suns rebounded 29.5% of their misses and shot 62.5% at the rim. So, not a matchup thing. They can handle the size.

Phoenix was once again held under 20 assists, producing just 19 after 16 on Saturday. In the second quarter, it had seven to just three turnovers, when it appeared the offense was out of the mud before eight assists and 10 turnovers in the second half.

Eric Gordon’s 15 points equaled the totals for Nickiel Alexander-Walker (10) and Naz Reid (5). That probably won’t happen again the rest of the series, another reason why this was one the Suns couldn’t lose.

Empire of the Suns

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