Timberwolves draw nightmare matchup vs. Suns after dream season: ‘It’s the Minnesota way’

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At the end of the first quarter, after the Phoenix Suns had scorched the league’s No. 1 defense for 11 straight minutes, the Minnesota Timberwolves finally showed a defensive pulse.

Naz Reid poked the ball away from Devin Booker, who had to retreat to the half-court stripe to get it. Reid went chest to chest with Booker, seemingly trapping him as a shaken Target Center crowd got to its feet.

Then Booker somehow got a sliver of daylight and zipped a pass to Bradley Beal on the right wing. He rose just before the shot clock expired and let a 3-pointer fly.

Splash. It was Phoenix’s eighth 3 of the first quarter, giving the Suns a 44-22 lead. But it did more than that.

The play was an ominous illustration of what has been apparent in three meetings between these two teams this season. The Timberwolves did a lot wrong in a 125-106 loss to the Suns on Sunday, 19 turnovers in the first half chief among them. But even when they seemed to do everything right, like on that possession, there was nothing they could do to stop the Suns.

With how everything shook out on a wild final day of the regular season, the Wolves dropped to the No. 3-seeded team in the Western Conference playoffs. Thanks to the Los Angeles Lakers’ victory over New Orleans, the Wolves’ opponent in the first round will be … the Phoenix Suns.

The Wolves are 56-23 against 28 teams in the NBA, a remarkable turnaround season that has earned them the right to host Game 1 of the playoffs for the first time in 20 years. But they are 0-3 against the Suns with losses of 19, 18 and 10 (a game Phoenix led by 23 with three minutes to play before the Wolves bench closed with a 13-0 run to mask it). The Wolves have never been within single digits in the second half in any of the games.

“They won three games in the regular season, regular season over with now,” Anthony Edwards said. “We got the postseason, so we’ll be ready to go.”

Beal scored 36 points with six rebounds and five assists, Booker had 23 points and seven assists and Grayson Allen scored 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting. The Suns scored 35 points off of 24 turnovers from Minnesota, made 55 percent of their shots and were 16 of 29 (55 percent) from 3-point range.

This wasn’t just a team out of its mind hitting crazy shots. Beal, Booker and the Suns starters consistently generated clean, open looks against a defense that takes pride in not allowing those. And they didn’t even need much from their best player. Kevin Durant had 15 points and four rebounds on 6-of-14 shooting.

It has been a tremendous season of revival for the Wolves. They will host Game 1 of a playoff series for the first time since 2004, saw Rudy Gobert reassert himself as a dominant defensive force and Edwards explode as a bona fide superstar. They entered Sunday with a chance to grab the No. 1 seed with a win over the Suns and a loss by either Denver or Oklahoma City. Both the Thunder and Nuggets had easy wins against opponents with no interest in competing.

A win over Phoenix would have clinched the No. 2 seed but still would have resulted in a matchup against the Suns. It appears as if this was their destiny to see their best season since Kevin Garnett’s heyday draw the worst possible matchup for them. Karl-Anthony Towns has spent nine years with the Timberwolves and he smiled in the locker room after the game when he said it was “the Minnesota way.”

“There’s no better team to be playing in the first round than a team that we struggled with all year,” said Towns, who had 10 points on 3-of-8 shooting with five turnovers in his second game back from a torn meniscus. “If there was ever a time for this team to earn its shot at a parade here or to get to the second round, it’s only right that it would be against the team that we found most difficult for ourselves this year.”

Minnesota’s 19 first-half turnovers tied an NBA record. Edwards scored just 13 points and had five turnovers, Reid gave it away four times and even the reliable Mike Conley coughed it up three times.

The Wolves will have the seed advantage and home court, but that will do nothing to scare the Suns. In Booker, Durant and Beal, they have three veterans who will not be intimidated by a rowdy Target Center environment. They will have two of the three best players in the matchup, and if Beal plays like he did on Sunday, look out.

Maybe most concerning for the Timberwolves has been the Suns’ success with Gobert on the floor. Wolves coach Chris Finch has said that Gobert is the reason they do not lose games with his consistency of effort, attention to detail and physicality setting the tone in this terrific season. But the Wolves have been outscored by Phoenix by 25, 26 and 17 points with Gobert on the floor in the three games. Those are three of his four worst plus-minus games this season.

“Gotta play big and use it. That’s one of our strengths,” Gobert said after scoring 21 points with seven rebounds. “They want to play to their strength, we gotta also play to our strength and find ways to impact them with our size.”

The Suns’ defensive blueprint is geared toward getting the ball out of Edwards’ hands. He had just seven shots in 35 minutes on Sunday, a staggeringly low number for the team’s most dynamic scorer. Edwards is averaging nearly 26 points per game this season, but just 14.3 against the Suns, which double-team him relentlessly and physically to make him give up the ball.

“Team effort. Make it tough on him,” Beal said. “I always say, ‘Foul his ass. Foul him.’ He knows I joke around with that but be aggressive with him, man.”

Edwards’ frustration with the officiating was evident throughout the game. Frankly, it has been throughout the season with incessant complaining when he does not get a call. He picked up his 15th technical of the season when he got into a trash-talking match with Beal and seemed to bite his tongue when assessing the game in the locker room.

Managing emotions will be key to turning this lopsided matchup around. Booker, Durant, Beal and Jusuf Nurkić play with an edge. They push, prod and flex. This team was assembled to make a run at a title, and a seven-game difference in wins this season will not faze them when the playoffs begin. Edwards and the Wolves, all of whom have little experience with deep postseason runs, will have to be ready.

“We have an emotional team. We have a lot of guys who can get lost in the game, get lost in the referees, get lost with confidence or something like that, in and out of the game,” Conley said. “Right now, we have to put our ego aside, put our mistakes aside and be able to move on.”

As Towns said, maybe this is the way it was supposed to be all along. This has been their best season in ages, one that has captured the attention of a long-suffering fan base. The Wolves sold out all 41 home games this season for the first time since Target Center opened in 1990. Their 56 wins are the second-most in franchise history. They have found a way for the unconventional two-big lineup to work after it was unimpressive last season. They have had one of the top records in the West all season long.

And now here they are, drawing the worst possible opponent for them. They could be underdogs when Game 1 tips off on Saturday. The doubters will be there, waiting to pounce. And so will the Suns.

Gobert is used to being doubted and dismissed in his career, especially when it comes to the playoffs. He knew this would not be easy because nothing has been, either in Utah or here.

“Regardless of who we play, nothing’s going to be given to us. That’s the beauty of it,” he said. “That’s why we want to be where we want to be. We want to win a championship. It’s going to be hard. That’s great. Let’s get to it.”

(Photo of Anthony Edwards: David Sherman / NBAE via Getty Images)

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