With the third year of the NBA’s Play-In Tournament on the horizon tipping off Tuesday evening, the matchups for the first games are set. Based on the following schedule, the Phoenix Suns, after finishing the season 64-18, will play the winners of Friday night’s game 6:
By nature of the Suns earning a regular season record that’s 18 games ahead – or as many as 30 games depending on who it ends up being – of any of these possible teams, Phoenix will no doubt be favored in any matchup, though some teams present tougher challenges than others.
Ahead of Tuesday’s tips, here are the possible matchups for the Suns in round one, counting down ranked by matchup difficulty from easiest (first) to toughest (last):
10-seed San Antonio Spurs (34-48)
Suns swept the season series against the old rivals by an average margin of 6.75 points per game, scoring 115-plus in three of the four matchups.
Spurs do have an All-Star in the fold again in point guard Dejounte Murray, and he’s one of the best there is, especially given what he can bring defensively (league-leading 2.0 steals per game). He’s also one of the best distributors in the game, dishing out 9.3 assists per game (2nd in the league) with the third-best assist-to-turnover ratio among players who play 30-plus minutes per game at 3.48.
On the bright side (eh?) for Phoenix, Murray struggles to shoot from outside the arc at just 32.7% (4.3 attempts per game). This gives the Suns plenty of room to pack the paint defensively – like they prefer to do anyway – to cut off driving or passing lanes for the All-Star guard.
After Murray, a lot of the Spurs offense comes from within the system, like from big man Jakob Poeltl who averages the third-most points (13.5) and assists (2.8) on the team. He’s also become an excellent rim protector, as chronicled by my friend Mat Issa at basketballnews.com.
Thanks to Phoenix’s abilities to handle point of attack (Mikal Bridges and Devin Booker) as well as bigs (Deandre Ayton), the Suns would be able to neutralize the Spurs’ strengths, meaning this would likely be a quick series, four or five games max.
7-seed Minnesota Timberwolves (46-36)
Suns swept the season series against the young Wolves by a margin of 7.33 points per game, scoring 125-plus in two of the three matchups.
Wolves have a lot of offensive firepower, ranking tops in the league in points per game with 115.9, although their defense is down at 24th, allowing 113.3. A lot of that can be chalked up to who their stars are; Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Anthony Edwards are all elite (or borderline elite) offensive talents, combining for 64.2 points per game by themselves. Edwards is coming off of a Thursday win over the aforementioned Spurs in which he scored 49 points (16-28 shooting), 5 rebounds, and 4 assists. However, the defense of the three is lacking a bit, with all three having their troubles with both on and off the ball defense.
There are plenty of narratives that come with a potential Minnesota series, especially dealing with Devin Booker’s friendship with Towns and Russell. Unfortunately for Suns fans who are just tired of him, the Wolves also have Patrick Beverly, who starts alongside Russell and Edwards, and we’re all fully aware of Beverly’s history with the Suns.
Due to Phoenix’s balanced effectiveness on both ends – only team in the top three in offensive and defensive efficiency – and Minnesota’s gaping holes on defense, this would likely be another quick series, ending in four or five.
9-seed New Orleans Pelicans (36-46)
Suns were 3-1 against New Orleans this season with the one loss coming while missing the starting backcourt. Each game was between 12-16 points, including the loss.
This is a unique matchup for the Suns given who’s coaching on the other side. Former Phoenix assistant Willie Green led a remarkable turnaround this season in New Orleans despite not getting a single game from franchise cornerstone Zion Williamson.
Pelicans finished last season 31-41 (2-9 when Williamson didn’t play) and after starting this season 1-12, finished 35-34 from that point on. A lot of that can be chalked up to Green’s leadership, but a lot of it is on newcomer CJ McCollum, too.
New Orleans traded for the guard on Feb. 8 ahead of this past trade deadline, and they’re 14-14 since he joined the lineup.
The stylistic overlap between the Suns and Green’s new home is very clear: ball-dominant guard who likes to explore the mid-range, versatile defensive-minded wing, and solid presence inside.
Add in that this is Chris Paul’s first team, and you’ve got lots of interesting narratives surrounding the matchup.
The Suns, however, have quality advantages in just about every department up and down the roster to combat the similarities. Barring magnificent gamesmanship from Green and McCollum, I would expect this to be a relatively easy five or six game series.
8-seed Los Angeles Clippers (42-40)
Suns split the season series with last year’s Conference Finals opponent 2-2. Other than the Clippers scoring 111 and 113 in their wins, no team reached the 110-mark. These are generally hard-fought, low-scoring affairs.
With the returns of Paul George and Norm Powell — and possibly Kawhi Leonard? — this Clippers team has become the big bad wolf waiting in Grandma’s bed.
After George made his return vs Utah — scoring 34 points and dishing out 6 assists in the process — I wrote about how formidable the Clippers are in a weekly column here even without someone as annoying as Patrick Beverly.
Beyond a talent base that exceeds most play-in rosters, the biggest challenge in this series to me would be the coaching matchup between Monty Williams and Clippers head coach Ty Lue. The main issue presented in that matchup is the way Lue likes to throw all sorts of defensive looks at teams, especially against star guards, like Booker and Paul.
Without Leonard, I think this is a relatively easy six game series. If he were to come back anywhere near his full strength, it could be a seven game series that could go either way.
Which teams worry you most and least, Suns fans?