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

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

Only five days after a demoralizing home loss to the LA Clippers, a game in which the Suns trailed 35-4 and had their spirit snatched away, they bounced back with three consecutive wins. Closing the season with a 49-33 record might be considered ‘underachieving’ for the star-laden Suns, but given the context of their chaotic season, they actually put themselves in a solid position to begin the playoffs.

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

It puts them in a first round series starting next weekend. They will have a familiar foe: Those same Timberwolves, who have to be feeling immense pressure (and perhaps a bit of fear) after getting destroyed by Phoenix to close the year.

Of course, sixth isn’t where Phoenix wanted to be when the season tipped off in October. They had greater sights in mind, eyeing homecourt in the first round and throughout the West playoffs.

But with the cards they were dealt early in the season, this will have to do. The Suns wouldn’t be in the fortunate position of avoiding the play-in without the services of Bradley Beal. He picked a terrific time to snap back into the superstar talent we remember from Washington.

Beal’s 36 points and 6-of-6 shooting from 3-point range guided the Suns to one of their best wins of the year. He carved up every defensive coverage Minnesota tossed at him. It was also Beal who led the charge 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 down the stretch.

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.

It was undoubtedly the most locked in he’s been since joining the Suns. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Defensively, the Suns forced 24 turnovers, with 19 coming in the first half. The only time they trailed was 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’s forced 19 turnovers in a half before. We were flying around, our gap activity was great. Our coverage execution was great. It’s a snapshot of what we look like when we’re at our best.”

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

I’ve never experienced a team go through so many ups and downs or mood shifts throughout an 82-game season. The first 30 games of the schedule were a slog, mostly because they only had their star trio together for — literally — a few minutes.

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 nagging back injury, they went 34-18, which equates to a 54-win pace over a full season. They were one of five teams to rank 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 constant turnover problems and fourth quarter letdowns. Their status as West contenders often seemed unrealistic with puzzling home losses, head coach Frank Vogel calling out his team’s toughness and physical disposition, or defensive miscues caused by a lack of communication.

There’s one thing you can say about this Suns group, however: They never let it spiral out of control. Every rough stretch in the schedule was followed by an emphatic answer. Phoenix’s ability to flush away bad losses instead of allowing them to linger around and affect the locker room should gain them some respect. It’s a quality Vogel carried with him to Phoenix after winning the 2020 championship.

Looking ahead, Phoenix has many reasons to be optimistic about their chances against the Wolves.

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

To say they’ve had Minnesota’s number this would be a gross understatement. Phoenix is the only team in the league to go 3-0 against the Wolves this season. But they haven’t just been wins — none of the games felt close. And that’s with Anthony Edwards and Rudy Gobert being available for all three.

Only eight teams posted a positive cumulative differential over the Timberwolves this season. Notice the gap below between Phoenix and the field. The Suns had a +23.3 net rating against Minnesota when you exclude garbage time possessions:

At the same time, the Suns aren’t falling into that trap. They refuse to get complacent in this matchup, understanding the playoffs trigger a greater level of preparation and intentionality on offense.

There will be more obstacles for Phoenix to overcome. As Vogel put it, the Wolves are extremely well-coached, which means they will present counters and likely have a response in Game 1.

“You can’t make too much of the regular season matchups,” Vogel said after Sunday’s game. “They got great size. I love their team. I’m a guy that has coached two bigs throughout the course of my career, and Coach Finch has done a great job with those guys. They have a lot of talent on that roster. Both sides of the ball. It’s going to be a dogfight.”

Devin Booker echoed those sentiments, saying it won’t be the same vibe when these squads tip off next week.

“No, you have to move forward,” Booker said. “It’s a whole different dynamic. We understand that. We’re going to start shifting our mindset to such. Everything is going to be different.”

For those who don’t remember, the Suns got a taste of this last year, too. On the final game of the regular season, Phoenix rested its starters against the Clippers, who elected to play their healthy guys. It required a comeback by LA just to secure an unimpressive win. But a week later, the Clippers marched into Footprint Center to begin a playoff series and stole Game 1 when the Suns’ stars were back in the lineup.

Above all else, Vogel is just relieved Phoenix won’t fall victim to the play-in tournament. Too many things could’ve gone wrong.

“We’re excited about it,” he said. “We wanted to finish in the top six to avoid the possibility — I mean, we would’ve been confident in a play-in game, but you avoid the possibility of a bad shooting night or rolled ankle changing the fate of your season. We were motivated to play all 82 (games). It was going to take all 82. Ten games ago, we looked at the ‘hardest schedule’ in the league by far, 10 straight opponents that were in the top six. And we went 7-3 in that stretch. We also said that level of competition was going to sharpen us.”

Game 1 of the Suns-Timberwolves series will tip off Saturday, April 20.

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