The Wolves lost a 108-106 heartbreaker to the Devin Booker-less Phoenix Suns on Saturday night at Target Center. The Wolves loss to the 10-21 Suns is another data point in a larger pattern of the Wolves accumulating “come from ahead” losses. The Wolves didn’t trail until the fourth quarter and built double-figure leads in the 2nd and 3rd quarters. Still, the Wolves managed to lose a close game to a depleted Suns team that was on a five-game skid. It was a statement loss, of sorts, in that it was another of the type that has plagued the team this year. While the Wolves’ new “aurora-don’t-call-them-lime” green “statement jerseys” were a hit, another statement loss was not.
Before we get started, let’s take a look at the team the Suns put on the floor on Saturday night.
The first thing that jumps out at you is that the Suns lineup is not good. Especially without the injured Devin Booker, Phoenix’s leading scorer. In the frontcourt, the Suns ran The Aging Tyson Chandler, The Prospect Marquese Chriss, and The Grinder TJ Warren. The Suns’ starting backcourt consisted of Former 2nd-round pick Tyler Ulis at the point and Rookie of the Year for Best Hair candidate Josh Jackson. Booker Backup Troy Daniels lurked nearby, on the Suns bench, along with fellow subs Alex Len (!) and DRAGAN BENDER. (!!)
The Suns are, if anything, the consummate work in progress. In October, early in the season, the team abruptly fired head coach Earl Watson and named his assistant, Canadian basketball folk hero Jay Triano, as interim head coach. In the past few years, the Suns have also traded two talented backcourt players, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. The Suns draft picks have been questionable at best. Chriss, the second-year player from the University of Washington and 8th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, is averaging just 6 & 4.5 as the Suns’ starting PF this season. Phoenix drafted Chriss’ backup, DRAGAN BENDER! (Editor’s Note: Sign a petition to get Dragan B’s name legally changed to [always all caps] DRAGAN BENDER!), with the 4th overall pick in the same 2016 draft in which they selected Chriss. Bender is averaging 5.4/3.3 in 31 minutes per game so far this season. Tyson Chandler’s backup at center, Alex Len, was also a high draft pick who has underwhelmed as a pro.
The Suns know they have a star in Devin Booker, but their second-best player is probably TJ Warren, which means not only that the Suns are going nowhere as currently constructed, but also that Phoenix’s front office again used a high draft pick on a player, Jackson, who plays the same position as one of the team’s most reliable veterans in Warren. Consequently, the vision for Jackson’s current and future role on the team is unclear, despite Jackson’s obvious talent (aside from his broke-ass J). What is clear is that the environment in Phoenix, in which Jackson is learning to play NBA basketball, is inferior in nearly all ways imaginable to to the one Jayson Tatum, who at 3rd overall was drafted one spot ahead of Jackson, is enjoying on Brad Stevens’ Boston Celtics team.
In a nutshell, Phoenix sucks. They’re going nowhere fast. They turned the ball over 23 times on Saturday. And they still beat the Wolves. And now, for the season, Phoenix is 1-2 against the Wolves. What gives?
The story of the game is how it ended. It was a tight game at the end. Recent Suns free-agent acquisition Isaiah Canaan was the show stopper: with 6.1 seconds left, the shot clock winding down, and the Wolves up by one, Jeff Teague fouled Canaan on a three-point attempt. (Editor’s Note: Is unclear why Teague was so block-happy against the Suns–he finished with three, including one massive block–but was called for an ill-advised foul on a jump shooter to lose the game. I thought we were done with the point guard rim-protector scheme after Thibs traded Kris Dunn last summer.) Canaan, who finished the night with 15 points, made all three throws to give Phoenix a 108-106 lead to seal the deal, despite two near misses in the game’s final moments by the Timberwolves’ Jimmy Butler.
The Wolves again played down to their opponents despite leading almost the entire game and putting together double-digit leads of 15 in the 2nd quarter and 13 in the 3rd quarter. This graph from nba.com probably illustrates the game dynamic best: the Wolves were winning almost the entire game, enjoyed several sizable leads, but still managed to lose in the 4th quarter. There was controversy with the call against Teague that put Canaan at the line for the three throws that ultimately decided the outcome, but Thibs’ argument–that the refs had really called a 24-second violation–was easily debunked.
In the 4th, Tyus Jones led the Wolves with 8 points, including two three-pointers about midway through the stanza. KAT contributed 7 points in the quarter, but it wasn’t enough. For the Suns, DRAGAN BENDER was draining threes en route to a career-high 17 points. BENDER plied the Suns with three balls all night, shooting a robust 5-8 from downtown. Alex Len had 12 points and 19 boards. That’s unacceptable. And #WinningTime hero Isaiah Canaan hung 15/5/7 on the night. Meanwhile, Troy Daniels, aka “Assassin Anon,” scored 17 off the bench on 5-8 shooting and 4-6 from distance. The Wolves’ starters were positive in the (extremely unreliable narrator voice) game plus-minus stats, with KAT notching a team-best +13. But the Suns’ bench vastly outplayed their Wolves counterparts and contributed by making runs while their rotations were on the court.
Finally, Jimmy Butler appears to have tweaked his back during the game. Jimmy being Jimmy, he re-entered the game and attempted to win it with a sprinkle of his late-game pixie-dust heroics. Butler was moving gingerly, but managed to fire up two near-misses in the closing seconds that could’ve easily netted the Wolves a #win.
Having lost another game they should’ve won, the Wolves are now 17-13. They’re still 4th in the West. Their .567 winning percentage implies that they’re still on pace for more than 45 wins. As frustrating as this loss was, it is time to look forward, as not much immediately relevant news came from this game. The Wolves we knew came out to play. They could’ve won. They didn’t. This will happen occasionally all season. Ups and downs, you know that.
Minnesota has a chance to close their current five-game homestand with a win on Monday against Portland. The Blazers are nipping at the Wolves’ heels for the 4th seed in the West and the division lead (!), coming into the game just a half-game behind the Wolves in the standings. Tip is at 7 CST.