Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves (18-18) at Phoenix Suns (14-20)

Phoenix Suns 104, Minnesota Timberwolves 95


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PHOENIX — Two weeks. That’s all the Phoenix Suns have until the March 15 trade deadline, when it’ll be perfectly clear if Steve Nash is still on the roster and almost abundantly clear whether this team has any magic potions in its cabinet to make a run at the playoffs.

A week’s worth of rest and two detail-oriented practices during the All-Star break might help, but with the Minnesota Timberwolves on deck tonight in US Airways Center, there’s nothing left to look forward to.

This season is to be played in the now — there are no breaks left and only a trade deadline to worry about before, like counting sheep, the ping pong balls start bouncing through the Suns’ dreams.

“I think we know we don’t have any margin for error,” head coach Alvin Gentry said. “Where we are and where we’re ranked, we have to come out right away playing well. We don’t have four or five games where we can test where we are.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” he added. “We have a lot of good teams coming in here to play now … a lot of Western Conference teams.”

Coming into the season, Suns owner Robert Sarver and Timberwolves general manager David Kahn might’ve been labeled as two of the biggest baffoons of the NBA. But the media gets off your rump if you’re winning, and the young Minnesota squad led by coach Rick Adelman is doing just that, standing ahead of Phoenix at 18-18 on the season.

All-Star forward Kevin Love has led the charge with 24.5 points and 13.8 rebounds per game, but he’s questionable tonight. The fourth-year player out of UCLA is banged up with injuries to his ribs and back, and he missed last night’s 19-point loss to the Los Angeles Lakers due to illness.

Even without Love, Adelman has plenty of options to replace his star forward. Rookie Derrick Williams started in place of Love last night, following up his career-high night of 27 point scored against the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday. Though they might be shot-chuckers, Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph round out the other tough matchups for the Suns on the interior, and that’s not to mention starting center Nikola Pekovic, who’s quietly having a killer year in his second NBA season with 12.4-point and 7.1-rebound averages (while putting on great promotional videos).

But the most intriguing matchup? That belongs to Nash and rookie counterpart Ricky Rubio, two players strikingly similar and the closest you might get to seeing the epitome of a true point guard.

And for the Suns, the meaning of tonight’s game goes beyond playing a beatable ballclub. Remember, as of now that .500 Timberwolves team is just one of many threats to take the No. 8 seed in the playoffs. Coming off two solid practice days where Nash said the team had time to “clear some things up and kind of improve on some of the slippage we had (earlier in the year),” it’ll be a good litmus test for any small hope remaining for Phoenix to make a run.

“We’re not going to get to practice a lot,” Nash said on Tuesday. “We have to continue to communicate and learn at shootarounds and at film sessions and keep on getting better.”

Now we get to see if that’ll amount to anything.

Three keys for Phoenix

Force the Timberwolves into jumpers. Just like they did to the young Washington Wizards, Phoenix could get the Timberwolves out of sync by baiting them into jump shots. Minnesota shoots only 32.5 percent from long range as a team with Beasley being the only consistent threat. Gentry could mix in some zone defense to get the 10th highest-scoring team in the league out of rhythm. Collapsing quickly on defense will also limit Minnesota’s athleticism and size in the frontcourt.

Fix the rotations on defense. The Suns won’t get by on defense by playing on islands; they’re not athletic enough to force turnovers that way. Especially against smart post passers like Love — if he plays — Phoenix must be ready to make the proper rotations when traps arrive and the ball is kicked back out. As long as a defender arrives on time, a contested jumper would be ideal rather than letting Love score at will in the paint. Considering they’ve had time to practice the last few days, the defensive rotations should theoretically be shored up for tonight’s game.

Jump on them from the tip and/or get bench production. Word has it that the T-Wolves are having trouble scoring with their starting lineup. That’s what got them into trouble two games ago, when they fell behind to the Clippers only to come back behind 72 bench points. We’ve seen this problem for the Suns before, most notably against the Houston Rockets. Well, Phoenix either needs to build a lead with its starters or get more than scraps from its bench if it hopes to start the second half of the season off on the right foot.

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