Suns look to carry regular season dominance over Timberwolves into playoffs

The Phoenix Suns have had the number of the Minnesota Timberwolves during the regular season, and will look to carry that into the playoffs.
Phoenix Suns v Minnesota Timberwolves
Phoenix Suns v Minnesota Timberwolves / David Berding/GettyImages

In a season that was marked by inconsistency, the Phoenix Suns found a reprieve whenever they played the Minnesota Timberwolves. In three matchups spread out across the season, the Suns put together some of their best, most complete performances to win each game in blowout fashion.

Now set to play Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs, the Suns will hope to carry over that success into the postseason.

The most impressive part of those regular season wins was the Suns dominance on offense. The T-Wolves, led by Defensive Player of the Year front runner Rudy Gobert, have by far the best defense in the league. Their 108.4 defensive rating is two whole points clear of the next team, the Boston Celtics. 

That hasn’t deterred the Suns at all in their matchups as they’ve registered a blistering 123.7 offensive rating, which makes that number the T-Wolves defensive rating for the series. For reference, the worst defensive rating in the league this year was the Utah Jazz at a 119.6. In other words, the Suns have turned the NBA’s best defense into the worst in the league.

At the heart of that dominance has been the Suns "Big 3" of Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Bradley Beal, who are a matchup nightmare for Minnesota. Though Gobert might capture his 4th DPOY, he’s not a perfect defender, and has regularly seen his defense get exposed to a degree in certain playoff matchups.

Gobert specializes in playing drop coverage, a pick and roll defense in which the screen defender drops to defend the hoop. This, combined with running teams off of the three point line (the Wolves give up the fourth fewest 3 attempts per game) effectively takes away the two most efficient shots in basketball: shots at the rim, and 3-pointers.

Given that most teams build their offenses around those shots, it's an effective strategy. But the Suns aren’t like most teams. They’ve pretty much completely eschewed the new trends in putting together this roster, as they are 25th in 3-point attempts and 28th in shots in the restricted area.

Instead, the Suns stars thrive in the mid-range, which is a shot that Gobert and Minnesota's defense consistently give up. The Suns as a team rank 2nd in the league in mid range attempts, and that’s with their “Big 3” all missing a large amount of games. True to form, Beal and Durant have shot 66% and 60% from the field against Minnesota, respectively, while Booker has had some colder performances, carrying a 42% mark.

Those shots will always be there in this series, and Karl-Anthony Towns’ late season return could spell even more good fortune for the Suns on offense. Towns isn’t a great defender, and is definitely the weakest defensive link in the Wolves' frontcourt. Forcing him into switches and attacking him at the rim will be a big part of the Suns' offensive game plan.

Another reason for hope in this series has been Jusuf Nurkić's success in the matchup. For better or worse, the Suns have become overly reliant on the big man due to this playmaking ability. The Suns are just 1-5 in the games Nurkić has missed this season, and look helpless without him.

Thankfully Nurkic is healthy heading into the playoffs, but if he were played off the floor due to a bad matchup, it would have the same effect as him being unable to play. That’s happened a couple of times this season, specifically in matchups against smaller, faster teams that lean on guard play and exploiting mismatches. 

The T-Wolves, who rank 17th in offensive rating, aren’t a good offense to begin with, but they’re also a giant team that plays slowly. Between Gobert, Towns, and Naz Reid, they’re going to have two bigs on the floor more often than not, so Nurk shouldn’t be in danger of being played off the court.

Instead, his physicality will be vital in limiting second chance points and the Wolves bigs in the post. The most important thing Nurk has to be aware of when doing so is staying out of foul trouble, which has been an issue for him against Minnesota. 

Surprisingly, it’s not the end of the world if Nurkić does start racking up fouls since his effectiveness in this matchup has also translated to his much maligned backup Drew Eubanks, a rarity this year. Eubanks has had a rough season overall, carrying a -4.1 net rating, by far the worst of any Suns rotation player. But like almost every other Sun against the T-Wolves, he has a sky high net rating at 20.8. 

So even though there have rightfully been calls to replace Eubanks as the backup center, this is a matchup in which he should remain at that spot, especially since his potential replacements have struggled in it.

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Both Bol Bol and Thaddeus Young lack the requisite size to hang with this massive Minnesota team, sporting -4.9 and -84.4 ratings against them, respectively. Going small with either of them at center would lead to the Suns getting smoked on the boards and the interior.

While playing smaller can generate more offense, the Suns have already had so much success at that end while playing a traditional 5 that there’s no point in doing so. 

The Wolves have been such a welcome matchup because the Suns' preferred play style works so well against them. Since this is the playoffs, there will certainly be some curveballs that Frank Vogel will have to adjust to. But if the Suns simply play their game, they should find much of the same success they've had against Minnesota all season.