10:10 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Suns -6.5, Over/Under: 234.5
With the finish line finally in sight, there is still PLENTY to be decided in the Western Conference with two of their number battling tonight as the surging Minnesota Timberwolves face off against the Phoenix Suns from Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona. After advancing to the playoffs for just the second time in nearly two decades, the Timberwolves (39-37, 6th in Western Conference) have designs on becoming a postseason fixture, and it must be welcome news to everyone in Minneapolis that they’re starting to peak at the right time. This has been an uneven campaign for the Wolves, who parted ways with a small fortune of players/draft picks to bolster their ranks last Summer, adding (towering Center) Rudy Gobert in a trade with the Jazz, pairing the three-time Defensive Player of the Year with (All-Star Forward) Karl-Anthony Towns. While there was initially a lot of skepticism in constructing a Twin Towers dynamic in today’s NBA, the fact is that they really haven’t been able to gel and see if the partnership can actually work; after a sample size of just twenty-one games, Towns (pictured above) would go on to miss FIFTY-TWO consecutive contests due to a lingering calf tear before finally returning to action last week. Upon acquiring Gobert, the train of thought went like this: as an All-NBA post defender, the Frenchman would help compensate for his young teammate’s shortcomings on that end of the hardwood, while Towns’ considerable offensive skillset would in turn make up for his fellow big man’s deficiencies when in possession of the ball. In two games since his return from injury, it’s clear that he needs to work his way back into form, as the 27-year-old erupted for twenty-two points in a narrow victory over the Hawks only to put in fourteen points on 5-of-16 shooting (31.3%) in the weekend’s win at the Dubs. We’ll see if these giants can develop the requisite chemistry to make Minnesota more formidable in the playoffs, for they haven’t come particularly close to living up to the hype in the little time that they’ve shared together; the only four-man combinations to feature both bigs and not D’Angelo Russell (who was traded away before the Trade Deadline) and log over 125 minutes together, consisted of those two along with (reigning Rookie of the Year) Anthony Edwards and (Sophomore Swingman) Jaden McDaniels, equating to margins of +3.5 in points, +0.86 in field goal percentage, -4.1 in threes, +3.7 in rebounds, -1.8 in assists, and +3.4 in blocks, as the team’s eighth-most frequently featured quartet. Furthermore, the three-man combo of Towns, Gobert, and Edwards has been marginal at best with differentials of -0.1 in points, +0.47 in field goal percentage, -5.0 in three-pointers, +3.2 in free-throws, +3.8 in rebounds, -3.7 in assists, and +2.4 in blocks. Simply put, the jury is still very much out on this tandem. When we last saw the Timberwolves, they earned their fourth consecutive victory, besting the Kings in a 119-115 win on the road without the presence of the recently returned Towns. No KAT, no problem for Minnesota, whose depth was on full display with SEVEN different players scoring in double-figures, led by McDaniels with twenty points on 8-of-15 shooting (53.3%). The aforementioned Gobert dominated the glass with sixteen rebounds and as many points, while (veteran Swingman) Kyle Anderson dished out eleven assists to go along with fifteen points. As a team, the Wolves shot a blistering 51.2% from the field, including 9-of-24 from downtown (37.5%) and 22-of-34 from the charity stripe (64.7%), while handing out a healthy THIRTY-THREE assists in comparison to committing just SIX turnovers. Ball-movement has been a real key to their success of late, as Monday night’s triumph marked the fifteenth time that they’ve registered at least thirty dimes this season, and the fifth time they’ve done so in the last eleven outings. (Head Coach) Chris Finch’s unit also did a solid job of defending Sacramento, limiting the hosts to 46.4% shooting and just 5-of-27 from three (18.5%), while permitting only sixteen assists, though the reason that this one was as close as it was their penchant for fouling; the visitors sent their opponent to the free-throw line for FORTY attempts, of which they happily netted thirty-two. On the season, no team has seen the opposition attempt more free-throws against them than these Wolves at 26.2 per game. From a betting perspective, the Timberwolves are a mediocre 37-39 overall against the spread this season, having covered exactly half of their last ten games regardless of the venue. The road has been kind to them of late, with seven covers in their last ten trips away from Minneapolis, including each of their last three outings during this current road win streak. Being an underdog has suited these canines, for they have posted a 7-3 mark against the spread over their last ten contests when receiving points from the oddsmakers, while also rising to the occasion and stringing together four consecutive covers against teams with a straight-up winning record. Furthermore, Finch’s troops have REALLY shown out on Wednesdays for some reason, riding a 5-1 run against the line on this particular day of the week. On the injury front, the aforementioned Towns sat out Monday night’s victory over the Kings as a precaution following that lengthy absence, though is expected to suit up against the Suns, while (young Swingmen) Taurean Prince and Matt Ryan are both listed as Questionable with due to an illness that has caused them to miss that last two contests. With just six games left in the regular season, Minnesota is locked within a battle to escape the play-in as they currently hold the tiebreaker with Golden State for the sixth seed out West, while trailing tonight’s opponent, the Suns by just 1.5 games for fourth.
Meanwhile, there’s going all in and then there is what the Suns (40-35, 4th in Western Conference) have done in acquiring the services of (perennial All-NBA Forward) Kevin Durant. The four-time scoring champion made his wishes to be traded clear after already doing so last Summer, and Phoenix, who was on his shortlist of destinations, managed to finally unlock the deal parting ways with a number of players and even more draft picks, landing the two-time Finals MVP. After meeting defeat in the 2021 NBA Finals despite owning a 2-0 lead only to then be embarrassed in the West Semifinals after compiling the best record in franchise history, the club clearly felt a sense of urgency as their championship window appeared to be shutting as quickly as it opened. Injuries and age were ravaging the rotation, leaving them caught in the maelstrom of mediocrity that had become of the middle of the Western Conference, which has featured nearly a dozen teams all within a handful of games of one another in the standings. However, while everyone was quick to brand the Suns as the favorites to reach the Finals, there fact is that they’re running out of precious time to get Durant (pictured above) acclimated to his new surroundings; the 34-year-old has missed THIRTY-THREE games this season with various maladies, including sixteen of the nineteen games since the trade and each of the last ten. Sure, he’s been fantastic in the three outings that he’s been healthy enough to participate in, averaging 26.7 points on a highly efficient 69.0% shooting,7.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.3 blocks, with Phoenix winning all three matchups, but it’s become a valid question as to whether or not he can remain healthy enough to guide them to the franchise’s first Larry O’Brien Trophy. After all, Durant has missed at least twenty-seven games in each of the last four seasons. With that said, there are other factors to consider as (Head Coach) Monty Williams and (General Manager) James Jones parted ways with some rather significant members of the supporting cast to get him, while shipping out FOUR first-round picks; (versatile Swingman) Mikal Bridges has developed into one of the premier young two-way players in the Association, while (young sniper) Cam Johnson was one of the few floor-stretchers on a reasonably cheap contract. At the end of the day, logic dictates that if you have the opportunity to land a generational talent such as Durant, then you absolutely do so, as the team’s new owner, Mat Ishbia signed off on the deal less than a week after the paperwork was finalized for his purchase of the club. When we last saw the Suns, they continued to recover from a disappointing 1-6 stretch with their second straight victory, a convincing 117-103 win at the Jazz. Indeed, Phoenix started and closed strong in this one, besting Utah 37-26 in a first quarter in which they shot a torrid 54,2% from the field, with nine assists opposed to a pair of turnovers, before ending the affair with a 32-22 fourth period. On the whole, the visitors didn’t shoot great (42.6%), but more than made up for it with their tenacity on the offensive glass, securing a whopping EIGHTEEN rebounds, which played a heavy part in them attempting fifteen more shots from the field. And Williams’ unit knew what to do with those extra possessions, dishing out a healthy thirty-one assists in comparison to committing a mere six turnovers, while getting to the line for twenty-two free-throws, netting all but two. (Veteran Point Guard) Chris Paul only scored nine points but accounted for ten of those dimes, while (All-Star Guard) Devin Booker led the way with twenty-four points, seven rebounds, and five assists despite knocking down just 7-of-19 attempts from the field (36.8%). The bench performed well in this one, scoring fifty-seven points with three of their number scoring in double-figures, including (veterans) Cameron Payne, Bismack Biyombo, and Terrence Ross who combined for thirty-six points. From a betting perspective, the Suns are a solid 39-35-1 overall against the spread this season, though have entered a tailspin of late with only three covers in their last ten games regardless of the venue. Home hasn’t necessarily provided the necessary comfort in this regard either, as Phoenix is a middling 5-5 against the spread at Footprint Center, though they have generally performed well when favored by the oddsmakers, covering the number seven times in their last ten outings when laying points. One thing is certain though: they’ll be happy to see the Wolves, who they’ve beaten and covered against in eight of their last ten encounters, including SEVEN consecutive covers dating back to March 2021. Furthermore, Williams’ troops are 5-1 against the spread in their last six games following a straight-up victory, though are just 1-5 against the line in their last affairs against teams with a winning record, which is the case tonight. On the injury front, the news dropped yesterday that the aforementioned Durant was probable to return from the sprained ankle that he suffered during a pregame shootaround roughly three weeks ago, with Williams stating that his availability will depend on how comfortable the veteran is performing on it before this matchup with the Timberwolves. Looking at the standings, the Suns are clinging to a tenuous grip on fourth place in the wild, wild west, sitting only a half-game ahead of the Clippers and one more in front of both the Wolves and Warriors with just seven games left in their regular season.