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Preview: Reeling Suns face surgent KAT, Wolves on the road

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The Suns might be without both centers against one of the best centers in all of basketball.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

What: Phoenix Suns (11-36) at Minnesota Timberwolves (21-24)

When: 3:00 p.m. AZ time

The Place: Frigid location

TV: Fox Sports Arizona

Radio: 98.7 FM/1400 AM (Spanish)


The last time these teams met, the Suns won in Phoenix. Since then, the Wolves are led by a new coach and the Suns are still reeling from continual bad first quarters.

Let’s see if the Suns can come out stronger in this game today.

The Wolves

ORtg - 111.2 (14th), DRtg - 111.7 (20th)

Probable Starting Lineup: Jeff Teague, Josh Okogie (R), Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson, Karl-Anthony Towns

Injury report: Robert Covington (ankle) and Tyus Jones (ankle) both OUT

The Wolves have lost three of their last four games to drop into 11th place in the West, but now get to face the reeling Suns followed by the probably-LeBron-less Lakers to help them right their ship a bit.

Karl-Anthony Towns has been a BEAST since the Wolves made changes to support his long-term leadership of the team. Since Jimmy Butler was traded on Nov. 10, KAT has posted 23 points, nearly 13 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.8 blocks per game over 32 games (Minny is 17-15). Now Tom Thibodeau has been fired too, clearing the way for KAT to dominate even further.

The other players on Minny’s roster aren’t having great seasons. Imports Robert Covington and Dario Saric were both better last year in Philly, Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague are steady but not difference makers, and max-contract player Andrew Wiggins has been a conundrum. Maybe Flip’s son can get the most out of him. Since Saunders took over (5 games), Wiggins is averaging 20 points (including 42% on threes) and 6.4 rebounds in the small forward role, all improvements on season averages.

Coming off the bench, the Wolves are getting a resurgent season from Derrick Rose, who even pumped in 50 points in a game this year. FIFTY. For the season, Rose is averaging 18.9 points (44 on threes) and 4.8 assists in 29 minutes per game, his best numbers since he was an All-Star under Thibs six years ago.

As a team, what the Wolves do very well is take a lot of threes and get to the line for free throws, not a good sign for a Suns team that gives up too many of each on a regular basis.

The push vs. shove will be on turnovers. The Wolves allow the league’s fewest steals per game, while that’s about the only part of defense the long-armed Suns do well. So watch that stat to see if the Suns have a chance in this one.

Team Leaders

Points: Karl-Anthony Towns (22.2)

Rebounds: Towns (12.2)

Assists: Teague (8.1)

The Suns (11-36)

Stats: OffRtg - 105.4 (27th), DefRtg - 114.1 (28th), NetRtg - minus 8.7

Probable Starting Lineup: De’Anthony Melton, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, T.J. Warren, Deandre Ayton (?)

Injury report: Jamal Crawford (knee), Deandre Ayton (ankle), Richaun Holmes (foot) all game-time decisions

Man, not a good day to have both of your only big men out for a game against the Wolves and Karl-Anthony Towns. Both Deandre Ayton and Richaun Holmes left the Charlotte game in the third quarter with injuries. Quincy Acy and Dragan Bender were the only “big men” available.

If both Ayton and Holmes are out, the Suns are stuck with Quincy Acy as their man in the middle. Acy is only 6’7” and probably some of that sand-in-the-bucket he appears to have is didn’t-play-basketball-for-months weight, not good signs for 30-plus minutes against one of the league’s best centers. Who knows, you might see more of the banished Dragan Bender or Ryan Anderson, neither of whom can defend in the post but at least they’re taller than 6’7”.

As for the rest of the team, the Suns simply can’t afford to keep getting blown out in the first quarter.

This starting lineup, with three rookies around T.J. Warren and Devin Booker, has lost nine straight games since beating the Orlando Magic on Dec. 26.

  • Yesterday against the Hornets: got down 32-13 in the first, never got close
  • Thursday against the Raptors: down 32-20 after one, took lead in fourth but lost by 2
  • Tuesday against Packers: down 38-19 after one, never got close at all
  • Won two of three games without Booker, had good first quarters in those wins over Kings and Nuggets at home
  • January 6: led the Hornets 30-29 after one, (Booker played only 12 minutes — back), took lead in fourth but lost by 6 to Kemba barrage
  • January 4: down 38-19 after one, got within a possession in fourth, but lost by 4
  • January 2: down 44-32 after one, got it close and lost by only 5
  • December 31: down 31-27 after one, but then got blown out

Seems like the Suns need a starting lineup shakeup to me. But it’s not Booker that’s the problem. It’s the three-man combination of Booker-Warren-Ayton that just doesn’t start games well as a threesome.

I would replace Warren with Kelly Oubre Jr. in the starting lineup, giving up even more size to opposing fours (that’s where Kelly would have to defend) but also giving the Suns more of a defensive presence. Warren defends like a wing, going more for steals than rebounds, so switching to Oubre can’t be any worse there.

Team Leaders

Points: Devin Booker (24.7)

Rebounds: Deandre Ayton (10.6)

Assists: Devin Booker (7.0)

Summary

Gonna be a super-tough game on the road in Minnesota if Ayton and Holmes can’t play.

Without Ayton and Holmes: Minny by 20

With Ayton and Holmes: Maybe a Suns win IF they show up from the get-go