The Phoenix Suns entered Saturday night’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves with a record of 4-9. They had lost five straight games, the last three of those at home, and came off a sizable loss to Orlando on Friday night. Their 112.7 defensive rating was second-worst in the NBA.
This juggernaut held the Timberwolves to below 40 percent shooting from the field, and a significant advantage from the free-throw line wasn’t enough to overcome the unstoppable offensive duo of TJ Warren and Devin Booker as the Suns walked away with the 118-110 victory.
It’s hard to sugarcoat this one from a Minnesotan perspective. The Suns were bottom-five in the NBA in both offense and defense entering this game, and while the Timberwolves aren’t much better on defense, they should have been able to run this team out of their own building.
Instead, failed execution, forced shots and pretty miserable games from both Jeff Teague and Jimmy Butler doomed them to this result.
Butler’s numbers will come out looking okay because of a ridiculous 14 of 16 showing from the free-throw line. However, after his quote from Friday’s practice about going back to putting the ball in the basket, he struggled mightily from the field, finishing the game 5 of 17, with many of those shots forced up from uncomfortable and unwise positions.
Butler’s role as distributor keyed much of the Timberwolves’ success on offense early this season, and his attempts to be the primary scorer seemed to do more damage to Minnesota than to Phoenix.
The Timberwolves came out of the gate ice-cold, but rode a significant edge in rebounding and free throws to a nine-point lead after the first quarter. The Suns just chipped away, winning each of the last three quarters. Close to halftime, the Wolves had a 27-17 advantage on the glass.
At game’s end, the margin was just one in favor of Minnesota, with the saving grace of the first half gone.
An impression watching the game was borne out in the plus-minus.
Minnesota played its best basketball with Tyus Jones and Nemanja Bjelica on the floor in place of Teague and Karl-Anthony Towns. Bjelica and Taj Gibson had never played together before Saturday evening, but Gorgui Dieng’s absence showcased a new and potent frontcourt combination. While Bjelica did not shoot as well as he has to start the season, he defended extremely well, with active hands and aggressive rebounding, and was a willing passer within the best-looking offense played all evening.
No more clearly was this shown than in the third quarter. Minnesota’s lead at halftime was four points, but Phoenix came out of the locker room the hotter team, with a Marquese Chriss 3-pointer pushing the Suns to their first lead at 8:40 in the third. The Suns’ lead grew to 83-75, then Jones and Bjelica entered. Minnesota immediately went on a 19-4 run across the quarter break, with better defense and smoother offense on display.
The Jones discussion is only going to get louder every time Jeff Teague has a game like this — let alone the wistful memories of a certain dashing Spanish point guard currently playing in Salt Lake City.
Jones is who he is: he might be too slow, too small and/or too young. The Timberwolves play well and look good often when he is on the floor, with no expectation or need for him to score. When Teague isn’t scoring, as he wasn’t tonight — eight points on 3-of-10 shooting with six turnovers — what more does he bring to the team than the cohesion that Tyus appears to provide?
Phoenix had two clear offensive threats entering the game: Booker (21.3 points per game) and Warren (17.2). Stop them with your two good-to-great wing defenders and get an easy win.
Instead, Warren got whatever he wanted inside the paint throughout the game, and Booker hit shot after shot from the perimeter. Both finished with 35 points on 22 shots, exactly the kind of offensive output the Suns need to win games.
The fact that neither of them seemed at all limited is truly baffling.
There are many questions to ask after a puzzling, embarrassing loss like this.
When does some of the blame for the continued defensive struggles of this team shift from individual players like Towns and Teague to the system behind them and its architect, head coach Tom Thibodeau?
A team which maintains goals of playoff games and possibly even wins both should not and cannot perform this badly against inferior teams. If they cannot shake these habits, they will remain the same Timberwolves of the past few years: capable of moments of brilliance, but nowhere near an elite team by any standard.