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NBA: Phoenix Suns at Minnesota Timberwolves

Suns 99, Wolves 96: Almost Good Enough

There seems to be a problem.

An unfortunately accurate photo.
| David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — “Refs you suck. Refs you suck. Refs you suck.” Those were the words that rang loudly inside of Target Center as the Wolves tried to channel their emotions through three quarters of a mucky NBA game dominated with defense, inconsistent whistles, technical fouls, and little offensive sizzle from both teams.

As the fourth quarter arrived, the Wolves were down 66-62 to one of the West’s best in the Phoenix Suns. The game took another tone and intensity swiftly grew as it often does when winning hangs in the balance. Both offenses started flashing their powers trying to steal a win—one team desperate to kick off a four-game homestand with a key victory against a formidable foe, the other trying to find their tired legs on a tough road back-to-back. The incredible shot-making was finally on full display between Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell.

Eventually, through all of the chaos, an open 26-foot three point jumper from D’Lo bounced out with 5.6 seconds to end an electric, back-and-forth final 12 minutes. The look was clean and Booker was asked if he was thinking the same “uh, oh” feeling as Phoenix reporter Duane Rankin was. “Same thing. ‘Uh, oh.’ I didn’t want to see the ice in the veins tonight. I didn’t want to see that,” said Devin Booker.

Chris Paul came alive in the fourth, scoring 19 of his 21 points on an array of difficult shots over the outstretched arms of Wolf defenders. He’s more than well known for these tough shots. (Yes, he was complaining all game, too.) An otherwise silent night quickly became distant memory for Paul. Booker added 29 points, also hitting some ridiculous shots in the fourth, while Deandre Ayton had 22 points and 12 rebounds in his return after missing five games with a right lower leg contusion.

“I think overall, looking at it, outside of Deandre, we all didn’t shoot the ball well,” said Booker. “It’s an ugly game; they’re a scrappy team that junk it up a little bit, so it was a little different. We said it before, we’ve been in these situations before, and we just have to weather the storm and keep fighting through with a ‘next play’ mentality.”

ON THE NIGHT of his 26th birthday, Towns started off on fire in the first, disappeared for stretches in the middle of the game, and did his absolute best to steal the show in the fourth. His 35 points and 13 rebounds in 40 minutes were outstanding and yet again not enough as the Suns won 99-96 for the ninth straight time on Monday night.

“It’s disappointing,” said Towns. “We did a lot of great things. You know, the score shows it. We played defense, 99 points. The fourth quarter, I feel like both teams really wanted to win and you can tell by the numbers. You know, first, second, third, we did a great job holding ‘em under what we wanted to and fourth quarter’s just a slug fest. Both teams are trying to find ways to win. Everyone was hitting shots and difficult shots. It wasn’t easy, so there’s a lot to be proud of tonight. Obviously, it’s disappointing. We didn’t come out with a win. You know, I’ll be the first one to come out here and say it, but I’m very happy with the energy, the effort, the tenacity we played with. These numbers prove it. 37% from the field goal. 22% from three for the Phoenix Suns, 77% from the free throw line. We did a lot of good things today.”

Even on a night the Wolves played almost well enough to beat an excellent opponent, and were left feeling it was a step forward in a long and taxing season, there’s no hiding from the fact that the trio (KAT/DLO/ANT) built to drives wins still can’t seem to all get it going on the same night. Another winnable game flushed down the drain, even if it was against a supreme Suns team executing with tremendous precision down the stretch through their elite backcourt duo. That’s what Finals caliber squads do, after all. This is also what the Wolves do. They constantly play up and down to their opponents. They matched what the Suns were throwing down all night, and that was almost good enough.

But almost good enough is a tiresome old tune. There should be no moral victory conversation, or being proud to have played with Suns, when this sort of effort is continously matched by ugly meltdowns against the league’s most vulnerable opponents like the Pelicans and Magic earlier this season. There’s an inevitable exhaustion that follows every loss—each defeat can be filed away in a certain category they’ve already clearly defined as plausible. We don’t really have to ask ourselves why they lose, but rather when it will all stop and how that change even happens.

There’s an undeniable problem this loss once again highlights. The Wolves have a very hard time winning if Towns, Russell, and Edwards aren’t all vibing at once. And if they aren’t all scoring well, they aren’t really vibing. “We still have to get all the guys going at the same time,” says Finch. “That seems to be the problem. We get one or two going and then we can’t get all three going. But I loved our shots that we got tonight, man. We got a lot of really, really good shots.”

If all three of them aren’t going strong, there’s no doubt the Wolves have to get plenty of production from everyone else. With a shorter rotation, at least in this one, that starts directly with Malik Beasley. “You kind of understand who’s coming in and coming out, and then you can get more in a rhythm,” says Beasley. “I feel like that was something different.”

The current, disheartening reality of the offensive woes seems to further bring out the reality that Beas has to be burning down nets with his three-point fireball if they are to stand any chance. And yes, Beasley did his best to give a shot of life off the pine in 24 minutes, grabbing the Suns attention with his floor spacing but obviously 12 points on 14 shots (4-11 from deep) isn’t close enough to overcome the lack of a third scoring presence when Edwards (2-11) and/or Russell (7-21, including 1-10 from 3 and 7-7 from the line) are struggling to score efficiently. This leads us back to the offensive issues that continue to spoil promising defensive showings (only 99 Suns points!).

The system they’re running is built on the Towns-D’LO-Ant core vibing in unision, but too heavily reliant on their individual scoring abilites, and too much time has already gone by this season with only one or two of them feeling it at once. When are they going to make each other better? Somehow, some way, they have to find a way to make each other’s lives easier instead of taking turns trying to carry a dwindling offense all by themselves. They also need to find ways to get everyone else going—especially Beasley, who feels he’s much more than a floor spacer.

“Well, I don’t just want to be a shooter,” says Beasley. “I feel like I’m a great player on both sides of the ball. So, I was trying my hardest to be a role man, get some steals, rebound the ball, little things like that. And I was able to do that tonight. My shot was able to help me out too.”

“I feel like the Phoenix Suns are a great team, but we had it,” he continues. “We had the opportunity. We’re still growing down the stretch. We’re proud of ourselves though for battling, and our defense is amazing. We held them under 100 points.”

Maybe the most telling quote from Beasley came when asked about the relief he felt in knocking down that first triple. “I was more happy that we got off the double-team quick,” he said. “When KAT gets double-teamed, we have to get the ball out quick and we have to cut for each other so I was more happy about that.”

That’s part of the offensive struggles coach Chris Finch and the Wolves must figure out asap before the season twists and turns down a familiar lottery path. How can they fix this sticky offense? How can they get out of this rut?

“I don’t know exactly how many steps, but I think we definitely went in the right direction regardless of the loss,” said Beasley.

The next step is almost already here for them to take against the Sacramento Kings back at home. Whether that will be forward is another question.