Matchup issues or not, Timberwolves’ first-round opponent Phoenix would be a tough out for anyone

Phoenix was the only team to beat the Timberwolves three times this season, and the Suns did it decisively. Not only were all three Phoenix victories of the double-digit variety, but the Wolves were never within nine at any point in the second half of any game.


That’s largely been chalked up to a matchup issue for Minnesota. The Wolves play big, often touting two center-like players in their lineups. Phoenix has the scorers — and, more specifically, shooters — to stretch the Timberwolves’ typically dominant defense out. It’s difficult for Rudy Gobert to have the same impact on the interior when Karl-Anthony Towns is put in a compromising position guarding the likes of sharpshooter Grayson Allen.

Yes, Phoenix may have been one of the worst-possible matchups for the Timberwolves in Round 1 of the NBA playoffs.

But wouldn’t that have been true for just about any team?

The only team to win multiple games in a series against the Denver Nuggets last season on their championship run was Phoenix. And that was after Chris Paul got hurt in Game 1.

For the rest of the series, Devin Booker and Kevin Durant were accompanied in the starting lineup by: DeAndre Ayton, who is a solid center, but was not a good fit for the roster; Josh Okogie, who is now out of the rotation, and Cam Payne, who plays sparingly now in Philadelphia.

The key reserves were Landry Shamet, a bench player this season for a cellar dweller in Washington; T.J. Warren, who’s not in Minnesota’s rotation now; Terrence Ross, who is out of the NBA, and Jock Landale, who played 14 minutes per game for Houston this season.

Not exactly a murderer’s row. That the Suns stole two games from the Nuggets was an indicator of the excellence of Booker and Durant. And now, those two are armed with a much stronger supporting cast.

Phoenix made a big splash in the offseason, trading for multi-time all-star Brad Beal for pennies on the dollar thanks to Beal’s exorbitant salary. It dealt Ayton to Portland for a better fit in Jusuf Nurkic. That same trade, which also sent Dame Lillard to Milwaukee, also brought Allen to the Suns. Phoenix signed Eric Gordon for the minimum in free agency and then dealt for “3-and-D” wing Royce O’Neale at the trade deadline.

Suddenly, a roster that was two and a half players deep in last year’s playoffs can now comfortably include seven or eight quality players. Minnesota sports one of the NBA’s best benches. The Wolves are Boston’s only rival when it comes to depth and versatility.

But Phoenix will no longer have its top-10 talent torpedoed by incompetence elsewhere. All of those new pieces had a tough time gelling for much of the season, especially with Beal missing ample time, but Phoenix appears to be hitting its stride at the perfect time of the year.

For starters, Beal has gotten going. Over his last 22 games, he is averaging 18.7 points, 5.8 assists and 4.6 rebounds while shooting a blistering 52 percent from beyond the arc. In Sunday’s win over Minnesota in the final game of the regular season, Beal scored 36 points while going a perfect 6 for 6 from deep.

“This guy’s one of the best players in the world, and people see him as a good player. When he plays like this, he’s one of the best players in the world,” Phoenix coach Frank Vogel said after the win over the Wolves. “He was doing it at both ends. He was guarding Ant on the other end, and he’s locking down and doing a great job and competing as best he can. … I can’t speak highly enough about the performance he had today.”

Since their Christmas Day loss to Dallas, the Suns are 35-18, the fourth-best mark in the NBA. For reference, the Wolves are 34-20 in that span. The Suns are sixth in offense and 10th in defense in that time.

Phoenix won 10 of its final 14 games of the regular season to narrowly escape the play-in tournament.

“I mean, we’ve been playing well. Whether it’s our best, we probably still don’t know,” Beal said. “We haven’t even really put together a full season with us three playing together still, with the amount of games we’ve played, but I think we’re definitely hitting our stride at the right time. In the playoffs, anything can happen. Every team is tough. We’ve just got to make sure to buckle down, lock in every single game.”’

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