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Game Preview #8: Wolves at Suns

Minnesota looks to get back on track against a Phoenix squad that’s rolling

Phoenix Suns v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Game Info

What To Watch For

Screen Defense

If there’s one thing we know about a Chris Paul team, it’s that they’re going to run a ton of pick-and-roll. Without DeAndre Ayton and the creation he can provide from the mid-post and on the block, I’d expect Paul and Devin Booker to hit PnR even heavier than normal, in an effort to make the most of their minutes with Ayton’s replacement, Bismack Biyombo. There’s no doubt that Biyombo is a lesser player than Ayton, but the Phoenix Suns’ stellar back court is more than capable of running pretty offense using Biyombo screens.

For the Wolves, the effort and attention to detail with which they defend those actions will go a long ways towards deciding the outcome tonight. Rudy Gobert will play in a drop, but he’s going to have to play just a bit closer to the level of the screen tonight. He won’t need to be all the way up like Karl-Anthony Towns will be doing, but if he lets Paul and Booker walk into mid-range jumpers, it’s going to be a long night for the Wolves. Those are two of the premier mid-range shooters in the NBA, and they both generally prefer that shot to going all the way to the basket. Just 3.8% (!) of Paul’s field goal attempts this year have come at the rim (within three feet of the basket). Booker is attempting 22.3% of his shot attempts at the rim this year, but that’s double his rate from a year ago, so I’ll be interested to see if that holds over a larger sample size.

It won’t just be on Gobert, though. He plays a big part in the drop scheme, but it is equally important that the perimeter defenders fight over the Biyombo screens and get back into the play for a rear contest. If the Phoenix guards are able to just walk into two-on-ones, that’s a massive problem even against a defender as great as Gobert. I’m confident in the ability of Jaden McDaniels here, but the Wolves will need a strong effort from the likes of Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell as well to survive this lethal back court combo in drop.

When Gobert is off the floor and the Wolves are in their high-wall scheme, the communication and effort is going to be paramount. One of the biggest weaknesses that scheme exposes is the second-side action. Once you’re in rotation, teams with multiple elite creators can attack a tilted defense with ease. This is especially important as it relates to Chris Paul. He is still a wizard with the ball, but as he’s aged, he’s naturally lost a bit of burst. The Wolves will have to be sharp to ensure that they don’t make things easier on him on the weak-side, letting him attack a scrambled defense. He and Booker will pick that apart.

Play With Pace

Another characteristic of Chris Paul teams is that they like to play slow. Why wouldn’t they? Paul is one of the best ever in terms of engineering a good shot against a set defense, so there’s not as much of a need for them to push the ball in transition in higher-risk, higher-reward situations. Needless to say, this being a slow, half-court game does not favor Minnesota.

That just has to come from someone in the starting lineup, and it really has to be D’Angelo Russell as the catalyst. Ant and Jaden are going to run and push when they get the ball, but too often Russell slows into a methodical, Paul-esque style of play without the same expertise. This offense is clearly disjointed right now against a set defense, and I’d lay most of that blame on both members of the starting back court.

While they figure out the best way to make use of their collaborative talents in the half-court, pushing the ball and getting easy baskets is important, but so is just getting into their sets earlier. Playing with pace doesn’t only apply to transition play. Getting into your actions with 18 seconds left on the shot clock is a whole lot better than 10-12 seconds. You give yourself more opportunities to get the defense in rotation, and theoretically make them defend more actions. Aside from the shot-making, which should come around, the pace with which the starting unit plays offensively has been the most frustrating part of the early season offense to me.

They can’t always just rely on Jordan McLaughlin and Naz Reid to provide that energy, spark, and purposefulness. At some point, it’s on the starters to give up some of their own personal habits in order to benefit the team as a whole.

As concerned as I am about the matchup with Paul and Booker defensively, I’m more concerned about the offense. While not always pretty, the Wolves come into the night 4th in defensive rating on the year. While opponents will start to shoot a bit better from three against them, their 33.3% allowed so far isn’t wildly low. The median this year so far has been a hair below 35%, so even if that stabilizes a bit, the defense still looks pretty good, actually. It’s the offense that I’m more concerned about, so that’s where I’m looking for the most progress tonight, regardless of how well Booker and Paul shoot.

Injury Report

Minnesota Timberwolves

  • Kyle Anderson: QUESTIONABLE — back spasms
  • Jordan McLaughlin: QUESTIONABLE — right heel soreness
  • Josh Minott: OUT — G-League assignment
  • Luka Garza: OUT — G-League assignment
  • Wendell Moore, JR: OUT — G-League assignment

Phoenix Suns

  • DeAndre Ayton: OUT — left ankle sprain