Wolves vs. Suns First Round Playoff Preview: How Minnesota Can Change Its Approach to Beat Phoenix

Wolves vs. Suns First Round Playoff Preview: How Minnesota Can Change Its Approach to Beat Phoenix article feature image
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Getty Images. Pictured: Rudy Gobert, Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves as we break down Wolves vs Suns with our series preview and how Minnesota can change its approach to take down Phoenix in the first round.

The Minnesota Timberwolves worked all year to earn the one-seed, only to lose in the last three games of their season and wind up third with a matchup versus the worst team they could draw.

So are the Wolves sunk? Let's break it down in my Wolves vs Suns preview.

Wolves vs Suns Preview, Analysis

The big problem for Minnesota is the matchup, and that's what everyone's going off of in the regular season. The Suns went 3-0 this season, and they basically decimated the Wolves by beating them specifically at the things that Minnesota wants to allow.

The Wolves want to give up jump shots; the Suns are one of the best jump-shooting teams in the league. They're able to get to their spots and hit jumpers, which means that they're taking the ball out of the basket on the next possession, which means Minnesota's never facing mid-transition opportunities to get easy buckets. It's all an uphill slog in any sort of playoff series against Phoenix.

When you have a team with a worse record favored, that probably indicates that the market is caught up on the fact that it's a tough matchup. So then the question becomes about two things, specifically, the best player in the matchup and the coaching advantage.

Both of these are pretty close in this series. You can definitely make the argument that the Suns' top three are significantly better than Minnesota's — Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Bradley Beal versus Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Rudy Gobert. Even if you go top two, you're probably in the same spot. Most folks will take KD and Booker over Ant and Towns based off of Towns' history of various foibles.

You get to the very top level, though, and it's closer. Booker's had incredible playoff performances and incredible playoff flameouts. Ant has had some pretty great performances in the playoffs but has yet to have a signature moment. Durant's got more history and has a litany of elite top level games in his career, but he's also struggled over the last four years in the postseason, so that comes down to pretty close. It's okay if you feel that the Suns are better in that regard, but you shouldn't feel that they're better by a wide margin.

Coaching's not a huge mismatch either, but what's important here is that Minnesota has home court with what could at least potentially be described as a coaching advantage. Frank Vogel won an NBA championship. He's gone to the Eastern Conference finals multiple times with the Pacers. He's an excellent coach, and the difference in these two coaching philosophies is what's really fascinating.

Vogel's an expert at being able to tweak things to where you can keep your preferred style and use it and leverage it as much as possible against the opponent. So if the age old question is, "Do you change what you do in a playoff series or stick with 'what brung ya'?", Vogel manages to split the difference by making small tactical adjustments to play into what he wants to do. He's not going to go away from Jusuf Nurkic. He's not going to go away from jump shooting. He's not going to go away from the formula that got the Suns to this point and gives them the best chance to win a title. He will stick with what works, but make small adjustments.

It's on the Wolves to force Vogel out of that comfort zone.

Finch faces a much bigger problem, which is that his inherent comfort zone based off of what worked across the 82-game season is simply not applicable here. The Suns are such a bad matchup specifically for what they do, and if the Wolves were coached by Doc Rivers or Mike Budenholzer or most of the coaches that operate with a very, "we're not going to get away from who we are" mentality because they don't want to panic, I would honestly think the Suns were going to roll here and win the series in less than six games.

Wolves coach Chris Finch is a little bit different, though. Finch had to adapt to adding Rudy Gobert and playing too big, and he did it. Think about that. Finch was inherently put at a disadvantage compared to most coaches with having to make something that doesn't work on the surface work successfully. But he did it, and this is a key part. Finch is adaptable.

Speaking to the media this week, both Towns and Finch said that they've got to figure things out in terms of using their versatility and what the Wolves are capable of doing. I can't over-stress this enough: You can't learn a ton from media quotes to scrums about heart and hustle and going to be a tough series, but you look for the small details. The willingness of Finch to adapt is a big factor here.

The Wolves want to play two bigs, allow jump shots, and take away the rim and 3s. That's not sustainable versus Phoenix, but a different style — with different, adaptable lineups, particularly small ball units with more switch ability and better perimeter containment, being more aggressive with Carl Anthony Towns of the five, and also simultaneously spreading the floor against Jusuf Nurkic — that's dangerous. This is a crucial component here.

If the Wolves go to single-big lineups, they have a much better chance of success here. When Towns is on the floor solo versus Jusuf Nurkic, Towns will space 'em out to 3. So now the rim protection that Phoenix has relied on with Nurkic playing deep in the paint with a big body deterring stuff at the rim is going to be compromised, forcing rotations and getting Nurkic to have to move more.

Nurkic is foul prone when he has to make multiple decisions and cover more ground; it's why he struggles versus motion offenses. So Towns' ability to spread the floor could have a massive impact on the series.

Likewise, if they run Rudy Gobert as the lone center and then spread the floor with Edwards and shooters, playing more wing defenders like Nickeil Alexander-Walker alongside Jaden McDaniels and Mike Conley, now all of a sudden you're playing multiple wings and you have the optionality of going to different matchups.

Of course, Kevin Durant annihilated Jaden McDaniels in the regular season matchups — it was an absolute beatdown. McDaniels is going to have to have a better series in the minutes in which he's matched up on Durant, but the matchup data also shows that he did better versus Booker.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker, on the other hand, did pretty well versus KD, and he did even better versus Beal and Booker. Being able to use both McDaniel and Alexander-Walker as two elite perimeter point of attack defenders can make up for some of what you lose when Gobert is not on the floor as a rim protector.

The Suns don't want to attack the rim (third lowest rim shot frequency). They want to shoot jump shots. The Suns do not want to try and create back door cuts. They don't want easy baskets. It's not how they're programmed. They're built to beat you with the tough stuff. If Minnesota switches to where they're no longer allowing the tough stuff and instead encouraging you to try and make the more complex plays in order to create easier baskets, that plays into Minnesota's advantage.

The Wolves may not be able to make those adjustments. There's not just the tactical side of this or the skill set. There's locker room politics as well. Is Rudy Gobert going to handle it if he can't be on the floor in crunch time? Is Karl-Anthony Towns going to be OK if he doesn't play a big role in this series? Those guys are going to have to be willing to sacrifice, and to be quite honest, McDaniels is going to have to make that same choice because the matchups show that he's going to be in a world of trouble.

They're going to need to put pressure on Booker and Beal involving those guys in pick-and-roll actions, and Edwards is going to have to be more vicious than ever in hunting mismatches and really relentlessly pursuing breaking down what Phoenix wants to do.

The Suns don't have a lot of counter options. They only really are able to bring themselves into the same kind of style. They don't have small ball lineups. Drew Eubanks can't spread the floor. He's a hustle guy off the bench. They don't feel comfortable with Durant at the five especially versus Towns or Gobert. So that option's not great. The Suns are built to beat you with what they want to do. It just so happens that what they want to do matches up very well with Minnesota's baseline. If the Wolves get away from their comfort zone, they do have the options in order to win this series.

It'll be tough, but those options are there much of your cap on who's going to win this series between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns needs to depend on who do you think is going to be able to adjust and get out of their comfort zone better? Because if you think that the Wolves won't be willing to get out of their comfort zone, you should bet Phoenix.

On the other hand, if you think the Wolves will change things up and have confidence that they'll put the Suns in an uncomfortable position, you should be betting the Wolves as a dog with home court advantage.

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Sean Treppedi
May 23, 2024 UTC