When: 7 p.m. AZ
Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena
Watch: Fox Sports Arizona
Listen: 98.7 FM
Coming off the heels of finally completing the Trevor Ariza for Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers, which will be made official on Monday morning, how will the Suns respond against a promising young team like the Minnesota Timberwolves?
Let’s dive into today’s preview, as both of these teams are actually more equally matched once Devin Booker is back from his hamstring injury. By the way, it sounds like Booker might be a full-go, so that changes the entire equation for Phoenix.
Suns - De’Anthony Melton, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, T.J. Warren, Deandre Ayton
Timberwolves - Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington, Taj Gibson, Karl-Anthony Towns
OffRtg - 101.3 (28th), DefRtg - 112.0 (26th), NetRtg = minus-10.7 (T29th)
After wiping their hands clean of the Ariza signing, which was a major failure at this point, how will Phoenix’s wing trio of Warren, Bridges, and Josh Jackson respond? That’s what I’m really honing in on at the moment. At this point, everybody knows what Warren will do. He’s a consistent 20-plus point scorer, who’s added three-point range has changed everything for his career trajectory. However, we need to see more flashes out of Bridges and Jackson.
The Suns’ X-factor continues to be Richaun Holmes. Not only is his energy helping change the entire roster’s mentality, but he's producing on both ends of the floor at a high level. Homes’ effectiveness protecting the rim, which flashed in spurts during his tenure with the 76ers, is really shining through right now in Phoenix.
Richaun Holmes and Nerlens Noel are 1st and 2nd in NBA in lowest opponent FG% at the rim this season (minimum 40 shots defended)— Ben Detrick (@bdetrick) December 15, 2018
Even though Holmes has been great all season, this is a game where Ayton needs to show up. This will be Ayton’s first go-around versus Towns, so I’ll be very curious to see how it goes. Either it’s going to end with Ayton getting demolished, most likely outcome with his first matchups against elite bigs, or him going bucket for bucket with Towns. In order for Phoenix to have a shot in this one, Ayton has to not turn into a net-negative on either side of the court.
If Booker returns, which I’m hedging my bets he will based off word from shoot around today, then it will be a massive boost. Remember the last time Booker returned from injury in December last season? He dropped 32 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists on the way to a Suns victory.
OffRtg - 108.8 (T14th), DefRtg - 109.5 (18th), NetRtg = minus-0.8 (20th)
Even though they are underrated outside of Philadelphia and Minnesota, Covington and Saric have already showed why they are such great fits alongside Towns. Not only can Covington lock down the opposing team’s best scorer, but Saric’s surprising passing ability makes him an ideal stretch forward next to their primary option. Covington alone has singlehandedly helped Minnesota escape the cellar, in terms of defensive rating.
If Covington and Saric continue to mesh with Minnesota’s budding superstar, they are set up for sustained success one they all hit their peaks. If you place shooters and plus defenders around Towns, anything could be possible long term.
Speaking of Towns, he’s become Minnesota’s true alpha since Butler’s move to the Eastern Conference. Over the past four weeks, Towns is averaging 22.8 points, 12.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.4 blocks while carrying 52.7/40/81.1 shooting splits. It definitely seems like KAT is getting back to his old self.
Even though there are many positives going around Minnesota at the moment, one player who could cost Minnesota’s rebuild entirely is Wiggins. Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor inexplicably signed Wiggins to a max extension, and he made Wiggins promise to his face he would improve before signing the dotted line. Yikes.
In his fifth season, Wiggins has shown no signs of improvement since his rookie campaign. Even though he is converting 37.2 percent from deep, Wiggins’ defense continues to lag behind even with his eye-popping athleticism. On top of that, Wiggins’ overall shooting efficiency continues to sputter at 40.3 percent.
Minnesota will have to find a sucker to take on this albatross contract eventually, because, if not, it will hinder their chances of ever becoming a legitimate contender in the Western Conference. For a former No. 1 pick to be their fourth-best player in Year 5, even after trading Butler, is a grim sign for his potential to ever change.
I actually believe this game, even possibly without Devin Booker, goes down to the wire with Minnesota’s major issues on the road sitting at 2-11. The swing players in this one will likely fall to Ayton and Warren, their two best scorers if their 21-year-old franchise star is unable to go.
The thing is, it’s going to be tough sledding for Phoenix. Covington will take the assignment of covering Warren, while Ayton will have his hands full against Towns. Minnesota’s defense has improved mightily since swapping out Jimmy Butler for Covington and Saric, which could lead to a tough night trying to break 100 points.
A blend of Minnesota’s road woes and Phoenix’s maddening inconsistencies will keep this one close throughout, but Towns takes over late when he’s needed most.
Timberwolves 107, Suns 97