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Conley has groomed Alexander-Walker into another strong point guard option for Timberwolves

Phoenix’s lack of a traditional point guard in this series has seemingly played a role in the Suns’ demise.

Minnesota’s defensive pressure has the Suns in a constant state of disarray. And there’s no natural floor general to restore order. Bradley Beal and Devin Booker are generally tasked with getting Phoenix into its offense. But that’s proving taxing for two of the Suns’ three star players, as they’ve consistently been harassed by the likes of Jaden McDaniels and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Every inch of space on the court is earned.

Those matchups played a role in Minnesota wearing down the Suns by the second half of each of the first three contests heading into Sunday evening’s Game 4.

Yes, Phoenix probably could’ve used a point guard. But the lack of one is becoming a familiar sight around the NBA. Teams are passing up on floor generals in exchange for additional size and length.

“They play the more modern style of basketball. A lot of teams are going towards the five guys that can all be around the same size, and they can all handle the ball and try to playmake,” Wolves point guard Mike Conley said. “There is advantages to having a point guard, I still think, to having a traditional one. There’s a lot of smaller guards out there that are really smart, high IQ basketball players who can really help the game.”

Conley is evidence of that. His arrival in Minnesota at last year’s trade deadline stabilized the Timberwolves’ ship. He’s masterfully run a team that features a lot of mouths to feed and is a go-to option to get Minnesota into actions at important junctures.

The Timberwolves have leaned into a point guard-heavy approach at times throughout the season, even playing a three-point guard lineup of Conley, Monte Morris and Jordan McLaughlin in the latter half of the season.

But the roles of McLaughlin and Morris have reduced as the team’s rotation tightened in the playoffs. So, Minnesota’s de facto backup point guard has been Alexander-Walker. Like Booker and Beal, Alexander-Walker is far more wing than floor general.

But the 25-year-old is quickly evolving into a dream-like hybrid between the two. On top of everything he’s done in the series — serving as both a lockdown perimeter defender and a 3-point sharpshooter — Alexander-Walker has also tallied 12 assists to just three turnovers through the first three games.

Not bad for a guy playing on-the-ball for the first time in his playoff career. That, Alexander-Walker noted, is what’s different for him this year versus last year’s series against Denver.

“Last year, I didn’t really play as on-ball. Trying to be a leader, get guys into spots, knowing the offense the way Mike does. I think that’s what we’re doing well this year,” Alexander-Walker said. “When Mike had those minutes out, we were able to sustain leads and get good offense and generate good looks.”

Conley joked he’s “the reason (Alexander-Walker) is who he is today.”

But, actually.

“It’s not too far off from the truth,” Alexander-Walker said.

Alexander-Walker noted he’s had a great mentor and role model in Conley, who he’s played with dating back to their time in Utah.

“(I’m) picking his brain all the time. What is he seeing? Trying to talk to him as much as I can when he’s on the bench just to see if he’s getting a different look or feel so I can get the offense going but also be myself,” Alexander-Walker said. “I’m not going to be Mike, but … I learn from him and how to get our flow and pace going.”

That’s part of Conley’s magic. It’s reading the game and the team and adapting his play accordingly. Conley fills so many gaps the moment they appear.

“He’s someone who doesn’t really want to shoot the ball a lot. He keeps people together. And then when it’s time, you really see another version of Mike that people are surprised by,” Alexander-Walker said. “I always tell him, they don’t know it’s by choice. Mike is choosing to play this way, because he has this view of the bigger picture. Ultimately, it’s helped me. From when I got there in Utah, just how my game changed, I was just a young, eager guy trying to score on every possession.”

Now, he can add “legitimate playmaker” to his resume.

“Whatever the game kind of needs, he has really delivered, whether it be shot-making, or attacking a close out or running the point and then guarding,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “It’s just been incredible.”

That’s Conley-like praise. Conley — who’s 36 years old — is currently cemented as Minnesota’s starting point guard. But there has been a question for awhile as to who his heir-apparent will be.

It may very well be his current mentee.

“Nickeil has been great. He’s been taking some of my moves. He’s learning a little bit. You see those little sidestep 3s he does in the corner, the reads he makes,” Conley said. “It’s stuff that he’s worked on. He’s been preparing himself for this for years. I’m sure he’s going to take over one day and do his thing.”

BRIEFLY

Finch finished third in NBA Coach of the Year voting. Oklahoma City’s Mark Daigneault won the award, while Orlando coach Jamahl Mosley finished second. Finch received one first-place vote.

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