The Phoenix Suns were ruthlessly efficient from start to finish as they dismantled the Minnesota Timberwolves 114-90 Monday night. The Suns won for the fifth time in April thanks to 57 percent shooting from the field and 66 points from their bench. Kevin Love and the Timberwolves looked listless throughout the entire game and never got anything going on either end of the floor.
“I don’t know what it is,” Love told Suns.com. “They just shot the lights out of the ball. We didn’t commit hard enough fouls or get into guys like we should’ve…”
Love had perhaps the quietest 25-13 in the history of the NBA. He went just 1-for-6 from beyond the arc and turned the ball over four times. He finished the night 7-of-19 from the floor and had little to no impact on the game. Perhaps the most meaningful play for Love came at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Anyone who has watched the Suns this year knew that a 15-point lead meant nothing, especially with Love’s ability to get hot and score in bunches.
After struggling mightily to score for most of the game, Love closed the third with seven straight points and looked poised and ready to continue. The Wolves, knowing he was their only hope to close the gap, forced the ball to him on the opening two possessions of the fourth. Love turned the ball over twice and Phoenix capitalized with a Markieff Morris triple and break-away layup from Sebastian Telfair. The Suns went up 20 and never looked back.
Despite his incredible season, Love will have off games like this from time to time. There was something different about Love’s game tonight, though. He looked baffled by the Suns’ defense and played extremely tentatively. This is a welcome sight for Phoenix with Grant Hill out of the lineup. Containing an elite player like Love isn’t something the Suns can do every night, but it is great to know they are at least capable of an effort like this, especially with their best one-on-one defender in street clothes.
Also disappointing for the Wolves was Nikola Pekovic. The last time these two teams met, Pekovic dominated Marcin Gortat and the rest of the Suns’ frontcourt with 24 points and eight rebounds. He was nearly unstoppable in the post that night, and he looked to be planning an encore when he drew three fouls on Gortat in the first quarter.
That was Pekovic’s only meaningful run of play as he finished with 11 points and just two rebounds. In a game where the Wolves were looking for anyone to step up and assert themselves on either end of the floor, Pekovic was content to fade into the background. This is unacceptable for a big man with his kind of potential on a team missing one its signature players and in serious need of a partner for MVP candidate (but not contender) Kevin Love.
Really the only bright spot for Minnesota was J.J. Barea, who started in place of the injured Luke Ridnour. Barea was too quick for Steve Nash for most of the game. He scored 16 points and dished out five assists.
Overall, the Wolves simply did not come to play tonight and the Suns took full advantage.
Phoenix dominated despite quiet performances by its two best players. Steve Nash had 14 points, but recorded only five assists in his 26 minutes of action. Nash also recorded his 6th block of the season when he turned away Barea’s jumper at the end of the first quarter. Marcin Gortat had just four points and seven rebounds. He sat down after his third personal foul (all on Pekovic) with 23 seconds left in the first quarter, and played just 21 minutes in the game.
Shannon Brown and the bench were there, however, to pick up the slack. Brown had a very efficient night, scoring 17 points on 7-of-14 shooting. He also pulled down seven boards and handed out four assists. Though he took some ill-advised jumpers after it became clear Minnesota had no interest in mounting a comeback, Brown was solid for most of the game. His jump shot looked good in the first half, and he was able to penetrate and create against the Minnesota defense.
Brown has really stepped up in Grant Hill’s absence, and his confident and improved play has contributed to the Suns’ current winning ways as much as anything. This was Brown’s ninth straight game scoring in double figures.
The real story of the game though, was the play of the reserves. Everybody got in on the action for Phoenix. Markieff Morris was the standout performer with 21 points and six rebounds. He was efficient both inside and outside, and he, along with Robin Lopez, played strong defense on Kevin Love. When asked about the bench’s performance, Morris told Suns.com, “It’s great you know, especially if our first unit don’t start the game off great, we come in and try to pick the energy up, play as hard as possible and set the tone for them when they come back.”
Though he is still inconsistent, Markieff is proving, with nights like tonight, that he has a place in the Suns’ future so long as his ability and confidence continue to grow. In the back court, Michael Redd and Sebastian Telfair combined for 27 points on 11-of-16 shooting. The Wolves’ starters and reserves didn’t have an answer for Redd’s quick release jumper or Telfair’s Energizer Bunny-like ball-handling and penetration. These two are becoming a potent tandem and a great change of pace from Nash and the starters. It is tough for any team outside of the elite title contenders to defend both Nash and the Telfair-Redd duo for 48 minutes. This backcourt depth will be a huge asset for Phoenix as it hopes to realize its playoff dream.
Robin Lopez didn’t go off on the scoreboard or the glass, but his toughness, energy, and defense were crucial, especially with Gortat in foul trouble on the bench. He defended Kevin Love well and went toe-to-toe with the NBA’s second best rebounder on the glass. Lopez has shown all season that he isn’t afraid to play against anyone, which is a huge benefit for the Suns. Gortat, at times this year, has shied away from overly physical opponents like Dwight Howard or even Pekovic. In games like these, Phoenix will count on Lopez to anchor the frontcourt. He seems to have the mental toughness and energy to get the job done when he’s called upon for extended duty.
Even Grant Hill, who is still battling back from injury, got in on the action as he sat in with the ESPN announcers, perhaps giving us a glimpse of his future occupation. During the broadcast, Hill said his workouts have been going well, and that he hopes to be back soon. With Phoenix heading into its toughest stretch of the season, Hill’s presence in the lineup will be more than welcome.
The Suns could not have asked for a better way to start off their four-game road trip. Phoenix is three games over .500 for the first all season and sits ninth in the Western Conference standings, a game behind Dallas and Denver. Utah is hot on their heels only a half game behind and Houston in the sixth seed isn’t too far out of reach. Though the home stretch will likely be the toughest string of games the Suns have faced, the team has reason for hope.
Earlier this year and in seasons past, Phoenix was undone not by defeats at the hands of elite teams, but by careless losses to minnows at inopportune times. This team, however, is taking care of business and winning games it should win. Whereas the Suns might have been guilty of playing down to their opponents’ level in the past, the current squad gives their all night in and night out. Sometimes they lose to a good team, and sometimes, like tonight, they trounce a bad one. The difference is that there are no off nights. That is a playoff mentality. No off nights. The playoffs for the Suns started April 1. If the first six games are any indication, they may well live to play in May.