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Stephen’s Study: Three things to watch for in tonight’s game vs. Minnesota

The Suns have a great test ahead tonight, while also having nearly their full roster intact as Devin Booker returns to the lineup, with Durant and Beal. Plenty to watch for, here’s a brief few that will catch my eye.

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

The Phoenix Suns will have their entire roster intact for the first time in the 2023-24 NBA season tonight. They’ll be taking on the Minnesota Timberwolves in this one, the league’s best defense. There will plenty to watch and plenty of subplots to absorb.

Let’s dive into a few things to watch for in this one.

1.) The Reintegration of Devin Booker

Devin Booker is slated to return to the lineup tonight, as reported first by Duane Rankin, of AZ Central. Given his comments to Gerald Bourguet of PHNX, regarding his minutes restriction after the initial injury, gauging just how much he plays will be important — as well as how he looks in those minutes, of course.

After prefacing with that, let's see if he can pick up where he left off in feel and impact.

Through 2 games, he’s averaging 31.5 PPG (on 60% from two, 53.3% from three, 100% from the stripe on nine attempts), 10.5 APG, and 7.5 RPG. In his first two games, we saw growths in the pick-and-roll attack — blending his scoring with a dictating playmaking prowess — to consistently compromise defenses.

Of the 35 players averaging double-digit possessions per game with a pick-and-roll, his 1.324 PPP is the best.

Additionally, as this is a comprehensive stat that includes the efficiency/effectiveness of his drives, the 1.48 Points Per Shot (PPS) that he generates (for himself and others) ranks the best as well. His 1.175 for pick-and-rolls that see an aggressive coverage ranks 2nd best for players seeing as many possessions (8 per) as he does against this coverage per game.

Also, noting his drives and explosion, and where he is efficiency-wise there. He’s at 62.5% at the rim this season, on 16 attempts.

Seeing how well he in addition to Durant and Beal coexist offensively, as well as how they’re featured together, and how the lineups slice out in the rotation, will be fun to track.

2.) Live Ball Turnovers

Solid volume on turnovers occurs when a team moves the ball, sees aggressive coverage, and garners the general attention that the Suns will offensively.

Some are understandable, but the volume — especially late in games and when the team has garnered a sizeable lead — isn’t. The Suns are presently bottom third in the league for in ball security (4th most, with 168) and live-ball turnovers (8th most, with 90).

The Timberwolves aren’t a team that plays at a track meets pace but does excel in their collective and opportunistic transition play — ranking 93rd percentile in their transition attack.

Anthony Edwards is a player who feasts on the opportunities to score in the most compromising advantage: transition.

In terms of winning the game and mitigating his easy looks, taking these off the board as much as possible lends itself to winning efforts.

The Suns had 12 @ Chicago, then nine in each of the last two, against Los Angeles (LAL) and Oklahoma City.

3.) Attacking Minnesota

The Timberwolves have the best defense in the NBA. Their defensive rating is presently 102.1, which would be the best over the last 4 seasons were it sustained for a season-long run. Their half-court defensive rating is 82.8 — nearly five points better than the second-best, in the Clippers. They have Rudy Gobert of course, who’s again further-cementing himself as one — if not the — best rim protector the league has ever seen.

We’ve truly grown numb to and gotten bored with his greatness, and it’s ridiculous. Nonetheless, Gobert’s defensive base is (super) drop coverage. He’s extremely active in it, and this season we’ve seen it resemble that of his peak self in activity and effectiveness.

He pairs that with some sensational screen navigation at the point of attack, from Jaden McDaniels — arguably the league’s best point-of-attack defender by the numbers. That’s accompanied by the selective yet effective application of energy from Edwards.

With those two on the floor plus Gobert, those lineups’ defensive rating is 106.2 — which would be third best in the league if it were a team rating, on the season. You may think that’s more so because of the “Stifle Tower.” Take Gobert off the floor, and the McDaniels-Edwards tandem has a 94.55 defensive rating.

Now, this speaks to just how on a string their team as a whole is, surely, but those two are heavily involved.

Karl Anthony-Towns has spent a bit more time with activity in pick-and-roll as well, mixing in up-to-touch defense, with show and recover, drop, as well as some switching and hedging. This enables them some scheme versatility, more than they showed even just last season. The Timberwolves boast a staunch 0.897 PPP allowed defensively, and 0.858 in the half-court — both of which being the league’s respective bests, needless to say.

The Suns will have their hands full — and then some — in this one.

Controlling pace and taking care of the ball, for efficient looks on offense but also keeping their defense set, is imperative. I would like to see the Suns be better on-ball, independent of Okogie and Goodwin, and tap into a tad bit more switching as well.

I watched the Atlanta Hawks erase a 20+ point lead in one quarter by ramping up their switching even the slightest bit from what it was in the first half, in addition to their general defensive activity. I also saw the Boston Celtics — customarily — manipulate matchups and lean heavily into switching to flatten out their attack, and excel in doing so.

Seeing the Suns tap into that dynamic, in a connected manner, to protect Nurkic and Eubanks, would best suit them.

It’s also proven to be something that can disrupt their all-NBA calibur attack of both Edwards and the Timberwolves as a whole — taking away the Gobert rolls, stifling the Towns’ pops as well as the otherworldly scoring of Naz Reid off their bench (44% from 3 on 4.4 attempts, on 13 PPG), and daring McDaniels to knock down three’s or create off the dribble.

It’s a great opportunity for the Suns to not only test their execution within their base, but branch from that and be more aggressive as they showed in the last few second halves, and even get into some matchup chess against the dual big lineups that Chris Finch deploys.

Great test for the Suns ahead, in this one.

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