Phoenix Suns (11-19) at Minnesota Timberwolves (13-13)

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Minnesota Timberwolves 111, Phoenix Suns 107

Suns

Timberwolves

Remember the goodwill the Phoenix Suns temporarily built up with a four-game winning streak heading into last Friday’s showdown against the Portland Trail Blazers? Eight days later, all of the warm and fuzzy feelings surrounding Alvin Gentry’s club have slowly dissipated with four painful losses.

Now ordinarily four straight December defeats wouldn’t be that detrimental to the psyche of a team, especially given that the last three have come against teams that were in last year’s playoffs. However, the Suns have made an art form lately out of losing games due to poor late-game execution. A 25-point loss to the Pacific Division-leading Los Angeles Clippers on your home floor hurts, but losing to Portland, the New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers in contests where the game was in the balance with mere minutes remaining just personifies Phoenix’s glaring issue 30 games in. The Suns simply don’t have an identity in any shape or form.

Having a “go-to” scorer would be nice, but frankly it’s more of a team execution issue at this point more than anything else. As has been the case all year, the Suns proved Saturday night against the Pacers that they have no problem coming back from big deficits. However after tying the game at 81 midway through the fourth quarter, Phoenix went on to hit three field goals over the final 6:20 of play. During that same span, the Suns turned the ball over four times and took six shot attempts from 18 feet or further. For a team that is not loaded with talent, to win close games, especially on the road, that level of offensive inefficiency won’t get it done, as has been proven to be the case during 2012.

Phoenix has now lost seven straight road contests since winning at Cleveland on Nov. 27, but there are still two more opportunities for the team to notch its first road victory of the month.

Saturday’s opponent, the Minnesota Timberwolves, is frankly a better team than its .500 record indicates. Before the season began, head coach Rick Adelman envisioned a backcourt of Ricky Rubio and Brandon Roy to play alongside the face of the franchise, power forward Kevin Love.

Rubio (4.2 ppg and 4.0 apg) returned to the team on Dec. 15 after being forced to sit out the first 20 games of the season (March knee surgery). In his first five games, Rubio has averaged just over 18 minutes per game off the bench.

Roy, who the team signed to a two-year deal in July worth $10.4 million, has missed the team’s last 19 games after a knee-on-knee collision in a Nov. 9 contest against the Pacers forced him to undergo right knee surgery. The injury was not all that surprising. After all Roy, a three-time All-Star, retired after five seasons in the league last year due to chronic knee problems. While Adelman and Co. had hoped to have him back for Saturday night’s contest against the Suns, his comeback seems to have hit a little bit of a snag.

And then there is Love, the team’s “go-to” guy when it comes to just about everything. After coming off an excellent showing in the London Olympics, the two-time All-Star was primed to lead Minnesota to its first postseason berth since the 2003-04 season. Unfortunately for the Timberwolves, Love broke his right hand during the preseason and was projected to miss six to eight weeks. The good news is the former UCLA star returned in just four weeks and has led the team in scoring (18.8 ppg) and rebounding (13.8) over his first 15 games.

Throw in the ACL tear offseason acquisition Chase Budinger sustained in the team’s fifth game of the season, and it’s safe to say Minnesota more closely resembles a MASH unit than a playoff contender so far this season.

Nonetheless, Adelman has made the most of a team riddled with injuries and chemistry concerns (seven new faces on the roster), and he’s done it with balanced scoring (seven players averaging more than 10 points per game) and team defense (ranked No. 6 in defensive efficiency by allowing only 98.9 points per 100 possessions).

After taking a year off from the NBA, two-time All-Defensive team member Andrei Kirilenko has revived his career in the Twin Cities in 2012-13, leading the team in blocks (1.5) and steals (1.7) per game. His 13 points per game are merely a bonus at this point.

Third-year center Nikola Pekovic has quietly had one of the more underrated seasons thus far of any big man in the league, averaging 15.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. He proved to be a big interior asset during Love’s 11-game absence earlier in the year.

Add in the consistency of point guard Luke Ridnour, the offensive firepower off the bench with Alexey Shved and Jose Juan Barea and the maturation, albeit a slow one, of former UA star Derrick Williams, and it’s easy to see how Minnesota could still be in contention for a No. 7 or No. 8 seed out West come March and April.

And 1

  •  After last night’s loss in Indianapolis, the Arizona Republic’s Paul Coro reported that point guard Goran Dragic remains optimistic about returning to the Suns’ lineup against the Timberwolves Saturday. Dragic was forced out of Friday’s contest against the Pacers after suffering a left hip bruise, bruised tailbone and sprained wrist in the first half of Wednesday’s game against the Knicks. Phoenix is 0-2 this season in games without Dragic on the floor.
  • The Suns have won 10 of their last 11 games against the Timberwolves, including five straight victories at the Target Center.
  • Former T-Wolves Michael Beasley (two years) and Wesley Johnson (two years) will make their returns to Minnesota Saturday night after leaving this summer via free agency and trade, respectively.
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