Advertisement

Souhan: NAW erases Suns’ lead, Game 1 advantage with big performance

For those who enjoyed Naz Reid Beach Towel Night, may we suggest Nickeil Alexander-Walker Handi Wipes Week?

Need an opponent's lead erased? Call for NAW, the positive impact player with the negative-sounding initials.

Saturday at Target Center, Alexander-Walker came off the bench to outplay stars and starters, producing what might have been the best big game of his career in the Timberwolves' 120-95 victory over Phoenix in their first game of the NBA playoffs.

"Man, I'm looking at his plus-minus," Anthony Edwards said. "He was a plus-28 on the floor. He was our MVP tonight. He made every play we needed, offensively and defensively."

That plus-28 was the best rating produced in the game. The Suns led by three in the first quarter when Alexander-Walker entered. He scored immediately on a drive, then hit a three-pointer.

Alexander-Walker finished with 18 points — most ever from him in a playoff game — along with four rebounds, two assists and four steals, the most ever for a Wolves player off the bench in a playoff game.

Unseen in the box score and evident throughout was Alexander-Walker's effort and expertise in fighting through screens to harass the Suns' shooters. He was one of the defenders who limited the Suns' Devin Booker to 18 points on 5-of-16 shooting from the field.

Naz Reid and Alexander-Walker turned the game around, helping the Wolves combat the Suns' star power with superior depth. "Those guys have been so big for us all year," Wolves coach Chris Finch said. "They have so much confidence no matter what role they're playing or where we need them. We need those guys to produce, and tonight they did a great job."

Alexander-Walker is the ideal bench player for the Wolves in this series. If not for the Wolves' well-established pecking order, he might even be an ideal starter.

Point guard Mike Conley had a brutal game, making two of 12 shots, committing uncharacteristically silly fouls and logging just 27 minutes. Alexander-Walker played 28, hitting seven of his 12 shots, including four of his nine three-point attempts.

Conley isn't big enough to guard the Suns' best shooters. Alexander-Walker has at least a fighting chance to guard any of them, and his shooting ability can carry the second unit and create space for teammates.

Less than 15 months ago, Alexander-Walker was the "other" player acquired when Wolves basketball boss Tim Connelly traded D'Angelo Russell to acquire Conley. That deal revealed the subtleties of roster building.

Conley brought leadership and maturity to a team that fractured at the end of last season. Alexander-Walker brought tenacity, versatility and bench scoring. Each can produce impressive numbers and transcend those numbers.

"I mean, Mike is like a big brother," Alexander-Walker said. "He's helped me tremendously throughout the season, even dating back to last year."

Alexander-Walker distinguished himself last season in the playoffs against the eventual champion Denver Nuggets. He proved invaluable this season for a team that dealt with injuries. Saturday, forward Kyle Anderson left with an injury. That could mean even more minutes for Alexander-Walker in Game 2 on Tuesday at Target Center.

He hopes to hit his shots. He knows he's required to defend.

"When you guard, that's how you stay on the court," Alexander-Walker said. "It's not a given that every night I'm going to shoot what I shot today. It's a given that every night I have the ability to guard. If I'm going to provide that every day, then they'll live with if I go 4-for-9 today and I go 1-for-5 tomorrow, god forbid, my defense has allowed me to add value where I can just be out here shooting my shot.

"We have so much talent on this team, I can't be out here just jacking up shots. That's not what's worked for me, especially for how my career has gone so far."

If Reid was worthy of beach towels, what giveaway should honor Alexander-Walker?

"Man, I don't know," Reid said. "I'll have to think about it. But something better. Something better."