Keys to Timberwolves’ first-round playoff series with Phoenix (plus, a prediction)

It’s, frankly, unheard of for a 56-win team to be an underdog to advance out of a first-round series in the NBA playoffs. Particularly when said 56-win team is entirely healthy.

Yet that’s the situation in which the Timberwolves find themselves, and the reason why is obvious: Phoenix has had Minnesota’s number. The Suns won all three regular-season games between the teams handily.

So how do the Timberwolves flip the script in the postseason? A look at a few keys to the series:

Defensive matchups

The Timberwolves have to find the correct ways to match up against the Suns’ bevy of potent offensive weapons.

On Sunday, the Wolves had Anthony Edwards on Kevin Durant, Mike Conley on Brad Beal and Jaden McDaniels on Devin Booker. The results weren’t good. Beal went off. But so too did sharpshooter Grayson Allen, who Karl-Anthony Towns was chasing around the court.

It was too easy with those matchups for Phoenix to get Minnesota’s usually strong defense out of rotation to allow the Suns to generate open looks. It’s a good bet the Wolves will align differently when Game 1 tips on Saturday, but can they find the proper combination to where they aren’t overly exposed in any specific matchup against a team that does pose five legitimate offensive threats?

Lean into versatility

Regardless of who is draped on them, Booker, Durant and Beal are too good of scorers to not figure out any specific matchup to find something that works from them.

The more the Wolves can fluctuate their approach, the more effective the defense will likely be. Sometimes, it might be best to have Minnesota’s top three wing defenders — Edwards, McDaniels and Nickeil Alexander-Walker — all on the court. At other points, maybe giving Durant a dose of Towns defensively for a few possessions could work.

The Wolves could switch one through four at times, and at other points blitz Booker off screen and rolls. The Wolves have developed a thorough catalog of coverages, and perhaps the more they cycle through them, depending on the personnel in the game, the less likely Phoenix will be able to sustain the offensive rhythm it carried throughout last Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Wolves.

Get Nurkic in foul trouble

Jusuf Nurkic might be the least notable of Phoenix’s five offensive starters, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t carry a ton of value. It’s a steep drop off in quality from Nurkic to Phoenix’s backup big men Thad Young and Drew Eubanks.

Phoenix doesn’t feel small when Nurkic is on the floor, due to his ability to at least be a presence at the rim and battle on the boards. Plus, offensively, Nurkic is a supreme facilitator from the top of the floor who is adept at finding cutters or executing dribble handoffs. Phoenix outscores its opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions when the center is on the floor this year, easily the best net rating among the five starters.

When he’s not in the game, Phoenix’s play dips. That was evident when Nurkic was on the bench with foul trouble Sunday. That’s the good news for Minnesota. Nurkic is extremely foul prone. Whether it’s with post touches for Rudy Gobert or Towns, or Edwards’ rim attacks, the Wolves need to put Nurkic in difficult defensive positions to draw whistles and potentially limit Nurkic’s minutes.

Make Phoenix’s defense pay

In the same ways Minnesota can’t match up with Phoenix’s offense, the same should theoretically be true on the other end. The Wolves have to find ways to compromise Phoenix’s defense.

Maybe that comes with size. If Durant is covering Towns, the Wolves have to get Towns into positions to score, and then Towns has to be smart and decisive with his opportunities. If Phoenix goes ultra small with Durant at the five, then Rudy Gobert has to live at the rim — either with deep post positioning or on the offensive glass.

And the Wolves have to move the ball enough to where at some point in the possession, Edwards gets the ball and can attack a non-stacked defense to where he can take advantage of the Suns’ lack of an elite perimeter defender.

Phoenix has too many weapons for even Minnesota to entirely slow the Suns’ offense down. The Wolves will have to combat some of Phoenix’s firepower with offense of their own. To do so, they’ll need to find some easier buckets along the way.

Prediction: Phoenix in 6

The Timberwolves have built up so much good faith with their consistent excellence displayed throughout the regular season. They didn’t lose three consecutive games at any point along the 82-game regular season ride. Anthony Edwards has always been a primetime performer. Minnesota’s defensive capabilities, in general, figure to serve the team well in postseason play.

So anyone assuming the Wolves will simply find a way to figure it out in this matchup has firm ground to stand on.

But Sunday’s matchup had playoff-like stakes, and Phoenix dominated. So it feels like it was a massive adjustment from Minnesota in order for the Wolves to win this series. Perhaps they’ve identified one over the past week and it will clearly reveal itself Saturday.

But assuming something will occur when there’s no evidence to suggest it is a tough ask. Minnesota can overcome matchup deficiencies against an inferior foe. But Phoenix is also a high-level team. The Wolves are capable of beating anyone. But, in this case, we may need to see it to believe it.

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