PHOENIX — When the Suns hosted the Timberwolves back on Nov. 1, Phoenix had two victories and Minnesota one. As they prepare to hook up tonight in the Twin Cities, the Suns have raced out to 10 more victories and the NBA’s best record whereas Minnesota has still yet to win another game after taking down still-winless New Jersey on a buzzer beater on Opening Night.
With this now being a matchup pitting one of the NBA’s best early teams against one of its worst, it’s no surprise that ESPN switched this contest originally scheduled for the network in favor of Brandon Jennings v. Kevin Durant, a matchup many basketball fans are frothing over.
But Suns head coach Alvin Gentry isn’t going to look past the Wolves as easily as ESPN’s executives did.
“I know everybody’s going to say, ‘Oh they’ve lost (14) in a row,’ but they’re playing at home, they’re a good basketball team, they’re a desperate basketball team, and as I tell everyone, they’ve got guys that are pros on their team, they’ve got guys who have pride, so we cannot walk in that arena thinking we can play any way and beat them,” Gentry said. “We’ll have to play at a high level.
“They’ve got some guys who are very talented guys. Al Jefferson is a very good inside player. We’ll have to play and we’ll have to play well, but as I told our guys, if we play at our level and play the way we’re supposed to then we won’t worry about the opposition, it doesn’t matter how they play. If we don’t play up to our level of basketball, we could get ourselves in a lot of trouble.”
The Wolves rank 28th in offensive efficiency (90.1 pp100), well behind Phoenix’s league-leading pace (111.4). Minnesota (24th, 104.1), however, slightly outranks the Suns (26th, 105.9) in defensive efficiency.
With Kevin Love missing the entire season to this point with a fractured hand and Ricky Rubio still in Spain, the Wolves have been led by Al Jefferson (15.6 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and rookie Jonny Flynn (14.1 ppg). Jefferson typically gives the Suns trouble, but coming off ACL surgery he has thus far been a far cry from the guy who averaged 23 and 11 and probably deserved Shaq’s All-Star selection last season.
Despite the Wolves’ struggles, the Suns know they will likely get Minnesota’s best shot, just as they got New Orleans’ best shot in their last loss.
“For the most part teams are definitely going to come out and play hard against us,” Amare said. “Right now we’re one of the top teams in the league, so they’re going to be up and ready to play us. Particularly we’ve got Minnesota to start the road trip off with. They’re not doing so well, but those are the teams out there that can bite you a little bit, so we’ve got to make sure we prepare for them.”
Added Nash, “Minnesota’s a young team, so they’re unpredictable.”
After missing the entire season with a fractured left foot, Suns center Robin Lopez has officially been cleared to return in this one.
Don’t expect greatness at first — or possibly ever — but a mobile, athletic 7-footer who can block shots will certainly help the Suns. He had reportedly shown signs of really growing into himself after a disappointing rookie season during training camp. If all goes well, the Suns will make this a laugher early and allow plenty of time for Lopez to catch his wind in a stress-free situation.
“With the size that he has as far as protecting the basket and things like that, we can use him, but we’re not going to rush him, force the issue because he’s not the cavalry,” Gentry said. “He’s not going to come in and and all of a sudden save all these things that we’ve struggled with as far as rebounding and things like that, but he’s going to help us. It’s (just) going to take a little time as it did with Amare.”