Timberwolves

How Much Should We Read Into Minnesota's Regular-Season Matchups With the Suns?

Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Each NBA season has 82 games.

  • 4 games against your four other divisional opponents
  • 4 games against six other non-divisional interconference opponents
  • 3 games against the remaining four non-divisional interconference opponents
  • And 2 games against the 15 opposite conference teams

Winning most of those season series will set a team up for success, and the Minnesota Timberwolves accomplished that.

They won 56 games, were one of two teams that never had a three-game losing streak, and only lost three season series all season. Minnesota lost twice to the Sacramento Kings in their three games, and the Chicago Bulls swept them in their two-game series. However, the Phoenix Suns swept them in the season series.

Phoenix also happens to be their first-round matchup.

Minnesota’s season series with the Suns has some of the most statistical extremes you will see in matchups between two playoff teams. Typically, we only see lopsided results like this between contenders and tanking teams.

November 15, 2023: Phoenix 133, Minnesota 115

The Timberwolves head to Phoenix fresh off a thrilling road comeback win over the Golden State Warriors. They are on a seven-game winning streak and have earned three straight wins on their West Coast road trip. However, they had to travel to the Footprint Center and play the Suns just 24 hours after beating Golden State.

The proverbial “scheduled loss” was in full effect.

Phoenix didn’t have Bradley Beal, but the Wolves went down early. They looked sluggish, clearly hampered by the road back-to-back, and trailed 76-54 at halftime. Minnesota allowed the Suns to capitalize on all their missed shots and had the reserves handle most of the fourth-quarter minutes.

Minnesota finished with its worst single-game defensive rating of the season, allowing 145.3 points per 100 possessions. Phoenix finished shooting 60% from the field, the second-highest mark by a Wolves opponent all season.

The Wolves had their worst three-point shooting performance of the season, shooting 5 of 27 (18.5%). However, they held their best turnover and TO% game of the season, only turning the ball over only 6 times on 5.4% of their offensive possessions.

Minnesota seemingly lost the game within the first few minutes, and it was a perplexing game statistically. But it only got weirder from there.

April 5, 2024: Phoenix 97, Minnesota 87

The Wolves had five months between their first two matchups with Phoenix. Again, the Timberwolves get off to a poor start, turning the ball over seven times, and are down 32-20 after the first quarter. While the Wolves didn’t have Karl-Anthony Towns, they had proven they could still play competitive basketball without him.

Still, it mattered that they didn’t have their second offensive weapon and play-finisher in this game. The Wolves finished with their worst single-game offensive rating, scoring 88 points per 100 possessions.

April 14, 2024: Phoenix 125, Minnesota 106

Minnesota hosted the Suns in Game 82. The Wolves entered the game in a three-way tie for first place in the West, making it a vital game for the potential Western Conference seeding. Phoenix got off to a blazing start for the third time, shooting 16 of 24 from the field and 8 for 11 from three, and led 44-22 after the first quarter.

The Wolves would not help themselves, either.

They turned the ball over a mind-boggling 11 times in the first quarter and finished the game with a season-high 24 turnovers and a season-worst 22.3% TO%. No matter how improved their scoring efficiency, the game was out of reach. They lost by 19, and they again had their reserves play the final 5 minutes of the game.

How much do the regular-season results matter?

There are many challenging statistics to gauge.

While the eye test is always going to differ from the statistics, and a team can only control what it can control. There are many important takeaways, especially with the most recent pair of games.

Minnesota’s opponents have been outscoring them significantly in the first quarters recently. They rank 29th in first-quarter net rating with a -25.5 mark in their last 10 games. However, it’s even worse in the two April games against Phoenix. They hold a -65 net rating, allowing the Suns to shoot 61.4% from the field and 66.7% from three in the first quarter.

The Wolves’ three-point shooting has also been a significant trend to watch. The Suns have shot 48.8% from three in their three games against Minnesota, significantly higher than their 38.2% season average.

It’s easy to suggest that winning and losing result from shooting variance. Therefore, it could be part of Minnesota’s defensive game plan and something they can adjust based on regular-season results. However, Phoenix will have the advantage in shotmaking because they have Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, and Grayson Allen.

It’s becoming increasingly challenging for the Wolves to cover these matchups. Rudy Gobert’s deep drop and roamer ability off Jusuf Nurkic and Drew Eubanks help him cover more ground. However, he must find more ways to slide up to affect three-point shooters’ shots.

Finally, turnovers have hindered the Wolves all season. They improved in March, only averaging 10.7 per game. However, they were careless with the ball again in the final two matchups with Phoenix this season, averaging 21.5 TOs. Naz Reid and Anthony Edwards combined for 9 turnovers in those two games, and Karl-Anthony Towns turned the ball over five times in the season finale.

Edwards, Towns, and Reid’s scoring numbers also trend in that direction.

  • Edwards has only scored 14.3 points per game against Phoenix, shooting 31% from the field and 27.3% from three.
  • Towns is producing 17.5 points per game on 52% from the field and 12.5% from three.
  • Reid was 10.3 points per game on 39.3% from the field and 33.3% from three.

Minnesota needs its difference-makers and creators to succeed if it wants to beat Phoenix’s defensive shell, which offers a lot of pressure on the ball handler on ball screens, particularly when Ant is the ball handler.

Three games is a small sample size, but the Wolves still have plenty to clean up on both sides of the ball. They cannot rely on Phoenix’s shooting variance or Edwards’s playoff pedigree to carry them through the series. Minnesota must adjust, or the results will not differ from their regular-season series against the Suns.

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Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

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