Souhan: Wolves deserve better challenge than soft, shallow Suns

Minnesota sports paranoia (MSP) caused many Timberwolves fans to bemoan a first-round matchup with the Phoenix Suns, the team that nobody wanted to play.

Turns out the greatest challenge facing the Wolves in this series is taking the Suns seriously as a threat in Game 4.

With a 126-109 victory in Game 3 on Friday night in Phoenix, the Wolves took a 3-0 lead in the series. Sunday night, the Wolves could complete the first playoff sweep in franchise history.

If you like a little drama with your sports, you almost wish that the Suns would offer more resistance than a thin flour tortilla.

The Suns have three high-scoring All-Stars in Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal. They have been no match for the Wolves, who are deeper, better defensively, more cohesive and more versatile.

The Wolves can beat you with smothering defense, three-point shooting, slashing drives, size, quickness and coaching.

The Suns can beat you only if their stars shoot the lights out. The Wolves defense has not allowed that.

This series is a triumph of shrewd roster building over the accumulation of random stars. Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly is not only having his trade for Rudy Gobert belatedly praised by national analysts, he is benefiting from the juxtaposition during these playoffs of players who were traded for one another last year.

Connelly dealt guard D'Angelo Russell for point guard Mike Conley and wing Nickeil Alexander-Walker in February 2023.

Thursday, Russell ate a snack during a timeout as the Lakers fell behind Denver 3-0 in their series. Russell scored zero points and did not seem to be interested in being a part of the team.

This is the third consecutive postseason in which Russell has embarrassed himself. Two years ago, the Wolves benched him against Memphis. Last year, the Lakers benched him. Now Russell appears to be snacking his way out of Los Angeles.

While Russell has proved to be a fraud, Conley has become the leader of an excellent team, and Alexander-Walker has become one of the Wolves' seven best players, an ace defender who can shoot three-pointers.

Friday, Conley and Alexander-Walker were exceptional. Conley scored 15 points on 6-for-11 shooting, with seven assists, four rebounds, a steal and a plus-17 rating. Alexander-Walker was everywhere, winding up with 16 points, five assists, two rebounds and a team-high plus-23 rating in 33 minutes.

Russell isn't the only one who should be embarrassed by these playoffs. The Suns are displaying the body language of a boxer hoping their trainer will throw a white towel into the ring before the next round starts.

Credit the Wolves for imposing their size, defense and intensity on the Suns. Only excellent free-throw shooting kept Phoenix in the game in the first half. In the third quarter, the Wolves dominated Phoenix in a way that should cause the Suns front office to question their roster and expenditures.

The Nuggets could close out their series on Saturday. The Wolves could close out their series on Sunday. Then the two excellent teams that Connelly built will play a much more interesting series than they did last year.

Yes, the Wolves put up a fight against the Nuggets last year, but they didn't have Jaden McDaniels or Naz Reid, the newly crowned NBA Sixth Man of the Year. This Wolves team is deeper and more mature than the one that lost to the Nuggets in five.

Timberwolves coach Chris Finch and his staff should get full credit for game plans that have frustrated the Suns, and the Wolves' foremost star, Anthony Edwards, proved to be an adept closer in the fourth quarter, finishing with 36 points, nine rebounds, five assists and two steals.

During his halftime interview with Bally Sports North, Wolves assistant coach Micah Nori, noting the ugly nature of the game to that point, said, "Someone once told me you'd rather have a raggedy ride than a smooth walk."

Then his team went for a smooth second-half ride, on a road that will take them to Denver, and a true playoff test.

The Star Tribune did not send the writer of this article to the game. This was written using a broadcast, interviews and other material.