Phoenix Suns Avoid Play-In Tournament, Face Timberwolves In First Round


Just when you think the Phoenix Suns are out for the counts, they rise from the dead and show flashes of brilliance.

Just five days after a disappointing home loss to the LA Clippers, a game in which the Suns were outshot 35–4 and stripped of their spirit, they bounced back with three consecutive wins. Finishing the season with a 49-33 record could be considered 'underachieving' for the star-studded Suns, but given the context of their chaotic season, they've actually put themselves in a solid position to start the playoffs .

Following their 19-point road win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Suns managed to avoid the play-in tournament and secure the West's No. 6 seed.

This puts them in the first round series starting next weekend. They'll have a familiar foe: the same Timberwolves, who will be feeling immense pressure (and maybe a little fear) to close out the year after getting destroyed by Phoenix.

Of course, sixth is not where Phoenix wanted to be when the season started in October. They had big plans in mind for homecourt in the first round and an eye on the entire West playoff.

But they will have to do so with the cards they were dealt at the beginning of the season. The Suns would not be in the fortunate position of avoiding the play-ins without the services of Bradley Beal. They picked a great time to get back the superstar talent we remember from Washington.

Beal's 36 points and 6-of-6 shooting from 3-point range led the Suns to one of their best wins of the year. He drew every defensive coverage Minnesota threw at him. It was Beal who led the way on Friday in Sacramento, as the Suns overcame a 16-point deficit and kept their playoff hopes alive. His 12 points and two steals in the fourth quarter provided a spark that Phoenix needed.

Over the last five games of the season, Beal averaged 26.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 4.2 assists while shooting 56.1% from two, 73.1% on threes (!), and 100% at the line.

This was undoubtedly the most off-putting situation he has been in since joining the Suns. And it couldn't have come at a better time.

Defensively, the Suns forced 24 turnovers, 19 of which came in the first half. They trailed only during the first two minutes of the game.

“It was really about the defensive side of the ball,” Vogel said. “I don't think I've ever been a part of a team that forced 19 turnovers in a half. We were flying around, our interval activity was great. Our coverage execution was very good. It's a snapshot of what we look like when we're at our best.”

Phoenix gets a week of rest before the first round begins, perhaps this is their chance to put the strange regular season behind them.

I've never experienced a team go through so many ups and downs or mood swings over the course of an 82-game season. The first 30 games of the schedule were very difficult, mostly because they only had their star trio together for a few minutes each.

Heading into December 28, the Suns were 15–15 and hovering around league average in point differential. They were as mediocre as possible.

Once Beal returned to the lineup after dealing with a serious back injury, they went 34–18, equaling a 54-win pace for the entire season. They were one of five teams ranked in the top 10 offensively and defensively during that span, joining the Celtics, Nuggets, Thunder and Pelicans:

One week, it felt like an identity crisis with continued turnover problems and a fourth quarter slump. Their status as a West contender often seemed unrealistic due to mysterious home losses, defensive mistakes by head coach Frank Vogel due to his team's toughness and physical nature, or lack of communication.

However, you can say one thing about this Sons group: they never let it get out of control. Each difficult milestone on the schedule was followed by a strong response. His ability to stick around and impact the locker room should earn him some respect, rather than just cleaning up Phoenix's bad losses. It's a quality Vogel took with him to Phoenix after winning the 2020 championship.

Looking ahead, Phoenix has plenty of reasons to be optimistic about their chances against Wolves.

This is the best possible situation for a Suns unit that just a few days ago looked destined for a 7-8 matchup. Had they finished seventh and won the play-in game, their opponent would have been the defending-champion Denver Nuggets. Instead, they are set to face a group that has not made it out of the first round.

To say he has Minnesota's number would be a gross understatement. Phoenix is ​​the only team in the league to go 3-0 against the Wolves this season. But they just weren't winning – none of the games seemed close. And he's available to all three of Anthony Edwards and Rudy Gobert.

Only Eight The teams posted a positive cumulative differential on the Timberwolves this season. Note the difference below between phoenix and field. The Suns had a +23.3 net rating against Minnesota when you exclude garbage time possessions:

Also, Surya is not falling into that trap. They refuse to be complacent in this matchup, understanding that the playoffs trigger a higher level of preparation and intent on aggression.

There will be more obstacles for Phoenix to overcome. As Vogel said, Wolves are extremely well-coached, which means they will present counters and potentially respond in Game 1.

“You can't take too much out of regular season matchups,” Vogel said after Sunday's game. “He's got great shape. I like their team very much. I'm a guy who has coached two great players during his career and Coach Finch has done a great job with those guys. They have a lot of talent on that roster. On both sides of the ball. “It's going to be a dogfight.”

Devin Booker echoed those sentiments, saying that when this squad leaves next week, the atmosphere will not be the same as before.

“No, you have to move on,” Booker said. “It's a completely different dynamic. We understand this. We're going to start changing our mindset this way. Everything is going to be different.”

For those who don't remember, the Suns got a taste of this last year as well. In the final game of the regular season, Phoenix rested its starters against the Clippers, who decided to play with their healthy ones. LA needed a comeback to secure a dominant win. But a week later, the Clippers entered Footprint Center to start the playoff series and stole Game 1 with the Suns' stars back in the lineup.

Above all, Vogel is relieved that Phoenix will not fall victim to the play-in tournament. Many things could have gone wrong.

“We wanted to finish in the top six to avoid the possibility — I mean, we would have been confident in the play-in game, but you can't afford to have a bad shooting night or a twisted ankle. Avoid the possibility of changing the fortunes of your season. We were motivated to play all 82 (games). It was going to take all 82 people. Ten games ago, we looked at the 'toughest schedule' ever in the league, 10 straight opponents ranked in the top six. And we went 7-3 in that stretch. We also said that the level of competition is going to make us faster.

Game 1 of the Suns-Timberwolves series begins on Saturday, April 20.


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