30/05/2024

Minnesota Timberwolves superstar Anthony Edwards. Image: Wikimedia Comms

The Minnesota Timberwolves and the Phoenix Suns have played each other 127 times but never in the post-season.

That will change when the third-seed Timberwolves and the sixth-seed Suns meet in one of the highly intriguing opening-round series.

Minnesota thoroughly exceeded expectations under coach Chris Finch, registering a 56-26 record – its first 50-win season since 2003/2004, in the Kevin Garnett era.

Anthony Edwards’ transcendent rise into a superstar took another leap, knocking down clutch buckets and thunderous highlight plays, including that earth-shaking dunk over Utah Jazz’s John Collins and his mind-blowing clutch block against the Indiana Pacers.

Three-time defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert is back to his prowess best on the interior. After a season (2022/2023) filled with frustration and adjusting to a new system, his front-court partnership with Karl Anthony-Towns caused havoc for opposing teams due to their size and length.

Gobert is deservingly the favourite to capture his fourth DPOY trophy. His impeccable chemistry with steady floor general Mike Conley became a devastating ploy, with the former Jazz teammates connecting for a plethora of alley-oop dunks. 

Minnesota’s defensive commitment propelled them from 10th in the 2022/23 season to first overall this season. 

The Timberwolves have numerous savvy defenders, including Jaden McDaniels, Kyle Anderson, and Edwards, who’s become a committed defensive player.

Naz Reid, a Timberwolves fan favourite, was a catalyst for the second unit, being a reliable scorer on a nightly basis. 

There’s an immersing level of electricity in the Twin Cities, an insurmountable belief this franchise can make a deep playoff run.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix Suns will aim to spoil the party.

In the off-season, they were one of the most talked about teams after adding Bradley Beal from the Washington Wizards to pair alongside Devin Booker and Kevin Durant.

The big three.

Lofty championship aspirations.

However, they would have until December 13 against the Brooklyn Nets to play their first game together. Unfortunately, Beal sprained his ankle the following outing against the New York Knicks, ruling him out for the next fortnight.

At the season’s three-quarter mark, Phoenix sat 35-26 after a March 3 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder before winning 14 of their 21 final games to snatch the sixth seed after the New Orleans Pelicans loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

It is a match up of epic proportions, involving Minnesota’s tall ball against Phoenix’s small ball.

Head-to-Head

Phoenix takes confidence in this series, having won all three regular-season matches against Minnesota, all coming by double-digits.

Firstly, a 133-115 victory on November 15 behind Booker and Durant combining for 62 points. In the aftermath, Mike Conley said the team had too many “mental lapses”, with the Suns hitting 60% overall from the field, knocking in 17 triples.

The second encounter on April 5 was a grind, with the Suns cruising to a 97-87 win. Suns shooting guard Grayson Allen said it was the best defensive team performance for the season.

Phoenix restricted Minnesota to only 38.8% shooting, Edwards to only 17 points on 6 of 19 shooting, whilst Jusuf Nurkic outplayed Gobert, recording 11 points, 15 rebounds, and six assists.

In the third and final meeting, the Suns dominated the opening period, scoring 44 points to seal the outcome. Beal was supreme, scoring 36 points and hitting all six of his three-point attempts.

Key Matchups to Victory

Anthony Edwards v Devin Booker

Two of the league’s top shooting guards will go head-to-head. 

Edwards will feature in his third postseason, having lit up the stage in his previous two against the Memphis Grizzlies in 2022 and champions the Denver Nuggets last postseason.

His ability to attack off the dribble is one he can exploit Phoenix’s interior defence, with Nurkic not known for his rim protection. 

Edwards is coming off a regular season in which he averaged a career-high 25.9 points and a career-high 46.1% overall field-goal percentage. 

However, the Suns clamped down on him in the three regular-season matchups, restricting him to only 14.3 points on a paltry 30.9% shooting and 27.3% from downtown.

Kevin Durant predominantly had the assignment of guarding the former number-one pick.

It’ll be fascinating to observe whether Phoenix coach Frank Vogel, known for his astute defensive coverage, will look to throw double-teams on Edwards.

Meanwhile, Booker is entering his fourth postseason.

The sweet-shooting guard has thrived on the playoffs’ bright lights, including last postseason, where he averaged 37.2 points in the opening-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers, then 30.8 points in the Conference semifinals against the Nuggets.

His mid-range jumper is one of the league’s most lethal alongside teammates Durant and Beal, Chicago Bulls’ veteran DeMar DeRozan, New Orleans Pelicans’ Brandon Ingram, Milwaukee Bucks’ Khris Middleton, Clippers’ veterans Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, and Sacramento Kings’ De’Aaron Fox.

Phoenix looks to design plays with either Nurkic or backup centre Drew Eubanks coming up high to set a pick to provide Booker room to navigate and pull up from 15-20 feet.

Booker has added another repertoire to his diverse skillset, taking on the point guard duties, which he has relished, averaging a career-high 6.9 assists.

Having another prolific scorer in Beal has taken some offensive pressure off Booker.

Rudy Gobert v Jusuf Nurkic

This big men’s match up will be critical.

Rudy Gobert has emphatically re-stamped his mark as the league’s best rim protector and defender. 

His adjustment in feeling comfortable defensively in coach Finch’s system has been a key cog to Minnesota becoming the league’s best defence. Gobert doesn’t take jumpers, but he continuously positions himself in the right spots near the rim, ready to clean up the crumbs for second-chance opportunities.

Phoenix has to be cognisant of having all five players in purple, orange, and white to rebound.

His opposite centre, Nurkic, has been a valuable piece for the Suns.

Part of the deal that saw De’Andre Ayton traded to the Portland Trail Blazers and Nurkic to Phoenix, the Bosnian giant is a connector within the Suns’ high-powered offence.

He’s the ideal big man facilitator Phoenix were keen on acquiring.

It may not be Nikola Jokic’s passing levels, but his clever vision facilitates looks for Booker, Durant, and Beal.

This season, he averaged an equal career-high four assists. And on only four occasions, he didn’t register a single assist.

But his most valuable asset is his rebounding.

Throughout the league, the 11-year veteran has been known as a tremendous rebounder. 

Four times in the regular season, he pulled down 20 rebounds, including a mammoth 31 rebounds against the Thunder. 

Offensively, the Suns drew up plays for Nurkic to attack Gobert in the side’s second encounter on April 5, which he capitalised upon.

That’s a must-watch if the Suns want to run plays involving Gobert and put in foul trouble.

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Prediction: Timberwolves in 7

Expect this series to go the distance. 

Minnesota’s ultimate test is what happens if Phoenix contains Edwards and Karl Anthony-Towns can’t generate an offensive rhythm. Towns hasn’t thrived in the playoffs. The Timberwolves’ versatility to switch Jaden McDaniels onto either Durant, Booker, or Beal will be decisive, considering how impactful McDaniels is on the perimeter.

Phoenix’s question is, how much can they ride their big three? 

In the Denver series last postseason, Booker and Durant played more than 40 minutes, with the substantial minutes eventually wearing them down in a game-six loss. 

Grayson Allen’s clinical perimeter. threat will play a vital role in a Suns’ team who don’t take a high volume of threes (ranked 25th for threes attempted in the regular season 32.6). 

Overall, it comes down to Phoenix being able to culminate defensive stops because Minnesota’s sturdy defence won’t give any free tickets to the charity stripe.

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