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Game Preview: Suns look to right the ship against the Timberwolves

Karl-Anthony Towns and company will do their best to make sure it isn’t smooth sailing.

NBA: Preseason-Minnesota Timberwolves at Phoenix Suns Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

What: Phoenix Suns @ Minnesota Timberwolves

When: 3:00 pm (Phoenix time)

Where: Target Center, Minneapolis MN

TV: Fox Sports Arizona

Radio: 98.7 FM


The Suns will enter the Target Center today aiming at a target of their own... breaking a 3-game losing streak. If Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes are both out again, that will be a tall order. At the moment Rubio is questionable and Baynes has already been ruled out. Strike one.

The Timberwolves got off to an impressive 4-1 start this season but have been 4-6 in their last ten games. Their most impressive win during that time was against the Jazz in Utah (112-102) but then two days later they lost to that same Jazz team at home 103-95. Their three other wins in the last ten games were against Golden State (3-13), Detroit (4-10) and San Antonio (5-10). Other than the win over the Jazz, the only other team with a winning record that they have beaten is Miami... in a game that Jimmy Butler did not play in.

Despite that, the Timberwolves are still a good team that will be a challenge for the Suns, especially if Rubio and Baynes are out or play hobbled by lingering effects of their injuries. For the season, the Suns are well ahead of Minnesota in OffRtg (6th vs 20th) and NetRtg (11th vs 17th) while being almost even in DefRtg (Suns - 14th vs Wolves - 16th).

Over the last three games the Suns ratings have dropped alarmingly to 18th in OffRtg, 20th in DefRtg and 21st in NetRtg. While that looks very bad for the Suns, Minnesota has also seen their ratings drop over their past three games to 22nd in OffRtg, 17th in DefRtg and 23rd in NetRtg. Not quite the drops that the Suns have seen but the T-wolves also haven’t had quite the injury problems that the Suns have faced. As I was writing this an injury update for Minnesota came in and they will be without starting PF Robert Covington today. Covington is one of their best defenders.

Even if the Suns wind up playing very short-handed again, you shouldn’t count them out before the opening tipoff.

The Timberwolves (8-7)

Probable Starting Lineup: Jeff Teague, Treveon Graham, Andrew Wiggins, Noah Vonleh, Karl-Anthony Towns.

Injuries: Shabazz Napier (hamstring) - game time decision, Josh Okogie (knee) - game time decision,Jake Layman (toe) - OUT, Robert Covington (personal reasons) - OUT.

Karl-Anthony Towns (26 ppg) and Andrew Wiggins (25.6 ppg) are the 9th and 11th top scorers in the NBA. The only team with a higher scoring duo is the Clippers with Paul George (7th/28.3 ppg) and Kawhi Leonard (10th/25.8 ppg). When they are both on their games, Towns and Wiggins make the T-wolves formidable offensive team. They are not a strong defensive team though and even though they are above .500 in the win/loss column, they have a negative-1.8 point differential for the season. They do protect the rim well and are 2nd in blocks this season (6.5 per game). They are also accomplished pickpockets that average 9.1 steals per game (3rd).

As a team, Minnesota is weak at hitting from the three-point line though. With a 31.3% average, they are 28th in the NBA. Opposing teams are also shooting well against them from three (38.8%/29th) which bodes well for the Suns if they can get their No. 6 ranked three-point shooting (37.8%) back on track.

The T-wolves have been one of the best rebounding teams this season (5th/47.5 rpg) which is a weakness for the Suns. Towns averages 12.1 rebounds a night which is 7th best in the NBA and twice as good a the Suns’ leading rebounder (Saric/6.0 rpg). If the Suns’ shots aren’t falling, don’t expect them to get many second chance opportunities.

Oddly, they have a better road record (5-2) than home record (3-5) which could be at least a small plus for the Suns.

Team Leaders

Points: Karl-Anthony Towns (26.0)

Rebounds: Karl-Anthony Towns (12.1)

Assists: Jeff Teague (7.6)

The Suns (7-7)

Probable Starting Lineup: Tyler Johnson, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky.

Injuries: Ricky Rubio (back) - game time decision, Aron Baynes (hip) - OUT, Ty Jerome (ankle) - OUT.

UPDATE: Cameron Johnson (knee) and Frank Kaminsky (hip) have been added to the Suns’ injury list. Both are listed as game time decisions.

2nd UPDATE:

The Suns’ offense and defense has sputtered with Rubio and Baynes sidelined. If just one of them returns (and completely healthy) today, expect things to go more smoothly. When both are back, everyone else will slip back into more comfortable roles and everything should quickly snap back into place.

With Rubio and Baynes out, I’d compare the Suns’ play to the way my car drives when I’ve been forced to use one of those undersized spare tires after getting a flat... and the Suns have been like a car with two of those on at once.

Devin Booker and Kelly Oubre Jr. are still the main offensive weapons but Cameron Johnson has started to show why James Jones had enough confidence in him to take him 11th in the draft. Initially thought by many to be a three-point shooting one-trick-pony, he’s proved to be a fairly solid team defender as well as a sniper. During his last six games he’s averaged 13.5 ppg and made 46.1% of his threes (18/39) in 22.8 minutes per game.

While the Suns are still one of the best three-point shooting teams in the NBA (6th, 37.8%) for the season, they dropped to 23rd (34.0%) in their last three games. This is partially due to missing Baynes’ 44.2% from three on 4.3 attempts per game but also from not having Rubio to spot shooters and set them up for easy attempts.

Just as the Suns miss Rubio as the maestro conductor of their offensive symphony, they miss Baynes’ veteran guidance on the defensive end. As we’ve seen, the Suns need them both on the court to play at their best.

Even with them both healthy, realistically Baynes wasn’t going to stop Towns but he might have slowed him down a bit more than Frank Kaminsky or anyone else the Suns have to defend him. Cheick Diallo is the most athletic defender that they could put on him but Cheick doesn’t really have the size or skill for the task either. The Suns are just going to have to eat Towns’ points and hope they can make them up elsewhere. I do have a bit more faith in the Oubre/Mikal Bridges tag team to make life difficult for Wiggins though. Keeping him below his season scoring average and making him work to defend on the other end might be the difference in this one.

Team Leaders

Points: Devin Booker (24.9)

Rebounds: Dario Saric (6.0)

Assists: Ricky Rubio (8.1)

Summary

Because of the still questionable playing status of Ricky Rubio, making a single prediction on this game is extremely difficult... so I won’t do that.

Scenario No. 1: If Rubio plays, the Suns win by 3.

Scenario No. 2: If Rubio doesn’t play, the Suns lose by 6.