Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves (21-21) at Phoenix Suns (19-21)

 Minnesota Timberwolves 127, Phoenix Suns 124

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The Phoenix Suns look to continue their surprising push for a playoff spot when they host the Minnesota Timberwolves Monday night.

For those of you living under a rock for the last 12 days, the Suns have won five of their six games since the All-Star break and are now just two games back of the eighth and final playoff spot. The Suns big push comes at a time when the other teams fighting to get into the postseason have begun to falter. One of those suddenly struggling teams is Minnesota.

Five days ago, the Timberwolves were riding high. After dropping their first game back after the All Star break to Phoenix 104-95, Minnesota rattled off three straight wins. This winning streak propelled them to two games over .500 and eighth place in the Western Conference standings. The T-Wolves’ ride lasted all of 48 hours. Toward the end of a close loss to the Lakers Friday night, star rookie point guard Ricky Rubio tore his ACL. Reports now say that Rubio will miss the rest of the season.

This is sad not just for Minnesota fans, but NBA fans in general. The Timberwolves were one of the feel good stories in the NBA this year, and Rubio was developing into the next Steve Nash (minus the shooting) with his passing and court vision. With the role of “Sentimental Favorite to Make the Playoffs” now open, the time has never been better for the Phoenix Suns.

Most people, myself included, wrote the Suns off after their loss to Oklahoma City Wednesday night. Wins against playoff contenders Dallas and Memphis have put Phoenix right back into the playoff hunt. A win tonight would put them into a tie for ninth at 20-21 just 1 1/2 games back of Houston. But the Suns must be careful not to overlook this Minnesota team. Just because they find themselves Rubio-less doesn’t mean they’ll lay down tonight without a fight.

Luke Ridnour is a professional point guard. He may not have had Rubio’s flash and virtuosity, but he does have experience and is playing on a well-coached team for the first time in several seasons. He recorded his first double-digit assist game of the season Saturday against the Hornets. The Wolves are not in incapable hands with him running the show.

Minnesota’s real strength this season has been its front court. The combination of Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic are averaging a combined 38-21. Most of this production comes from Love, but Pekovic is really having a breakout year. He has topped 25 points in a game three times already this season. He is also coming off back-to-back games of 20+ points and 10+ rebounds. Pekovic and Marcin Gortat’s Eastern European showdown will be a great matchup of up-and-coming centers in the West.

“Who will match up against Kevin Love?” is the primary question facing coach Alvin Gentry in preparation for this game. Love is an undersized power forward, so there is the potential that Grant Hill could guard him for stretches. Conventional wisdom is that Love would simply take the smaller and older Hill down to the post and have a field day, but this article by Grantland’s Sebastian Pruiti suggests Love may not be as good with his back to the hoop as one might think.

Another defensive option would be to use the zone defense the Suns have employed several times over the last few games. The problem with using a zone is that is leaves shooters open from beyond the arc. Love is connecting on just over 36 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, but the Wolves as a team are no better from 3-point land than the Suns have been. Look for Phoenix to take the risk and use the zone for stretches.

The final defensive option is the combination of Channing Frye and reserve Markieff Morris. With as well as Kevin Love is playing at this point in the season, this combination for Phoenix really has no shot of keeping Love contained. Thus the Suns need to use the same game plan they did against the Minnesota last time around. Essentially, Kevin Love will get his, but the Suns’ team defense will keep everyone else on Minnesota’s roster contained. It worked for Phoenix 12 days ago and it worked for the Hornets on Saturday night. Kevin Love posted a 31 and 16 performance, but the Wolves still lost to cellar-dwelling New Orleans by six points.

For the Suns, the key to victory will once again be the battle of the boards. Minnesota might be the toughest test Phoenix has faced in some time as they rank third in the NBA in rebounds per game and seventh in rebounding efficiency, according to ESPN’s John Hollinger. The Suns absolutely trounced Memphis on the boards Saturday night (52-35). They will need another strong showing with contributions not just from Gortat and Frye, but from the entire roster. Against Memphis, seven Suns recorded at least five rebounds. That’s proof of a team commitment to blocking out and battling. If the Suns can control the glass against this T-Wolves team, they should win this game easily and continue this shocking push for the postseason.

And 1

If the Suns make the playoffs this year, it has to go down as one of Nash’s most impressive career achievements. This is by far the least talented team he has played with in a Phoenix uniform, yet they compete almost every night and Nash is having one of his best seasons from an efficiency standpoint since his back-to-back MVP years. I’m not claiming that Nash is putting the team on his back and willing them to victory night-in and night-out, but the case could be made that his play is elevating the play of everyone around him, namely Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley.

Even with Markieff Morris seemingly hitting the rookie wall and Channing Frye having a terribly off year, the Suns are still, miraculously, in contention. Of course this could all be a distant memory if the Suns have a losing streak, but for now, Suns fans should simply bask in the joy that only Steve Nash can bring, snatching relevancy from the clutches of a forgotten season.

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