Due to the NBA play-in tournament determining the last two playoff spots in each conference, the Phoenix Suns do not know their opponent for the first round of the 2022 NBA Playoffs until Friday night.
The loser between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Los Angeles Clippers will host the winner between the New Orleans Pelicans and the San Antonio Spurs, and that victory that night will be the eighth and final Western Conference post-season team.
These are four potential matchups that the Suns need to prepare for in what will definitely be a busy week for the staff.
Here’s a brief overview of how Phoenix’s matches against these teams went this season, and a few impressions of how a playoff series with each of them could go.
(AP Photo / Andy Clayton-King)
Meetings in the season (3-0)
This Timberwolves team has a way of playing the Suns hard.
A blow of a basketball game on Nov. 15 at the Target Center full of fouls, free throws and turnovers saw the Suns come out on top 99-96 after just playing better in crunch time. Shocking, I know.
Matchup No. 2 in Phoenix did not see Minnesota’s stingy defense ruin the match again. The Suns were uniquely offensive, hitting 20 3s, reaching 36 assists and getting seven double-digit players to win 134-124 despite missing seven players.
What I will refer to as “Too Small Game” was the last in the regular season match between these two teams and it should ring a bell for you. Karl-Anthony Towns’ thump on Jae Crowder and gesture / celebration afterwards ignited an evil and furious second half from the Suns to lose 74 of their 125 points. This was full of technical flaws and established a kind of mini-rivalry that would greatly evolve further in a playoff series.
The big picture
From an initial point of view, Minnesota will be a challenging match for everyone, based on a few different factors of its team DNA coming together.
The Timberwolves’ list is full of athletics and length, which it uses to generate the second most revenue in the NBA this season, 16.2% of their opponent’s possessions, per. Cleaning the Glass. On the other side of the ball, Minnesota finished in sixth place in offensive rating.
Towns is perhaps the most underrated player in the NBA. He’s a flat superstar offensively. 2020 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards is able to score 30+ every night and had a strong second season. Sprinkle D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley in as the complementary options and there is your offensive firepower.
Jarred Vanderbilt, Jaden McDaniels and Patrick Beverley provide the aforementioned defensive chaos along with Edwards, who has taken it upon himself to be a plus defender earlier in his career than we might have expected.
It’s a recipe for forcing a tough six or seven fights out of a high seed.
But with that in mind, this is Minnesota’s first real trip to basketball after the season as a group. And as individuals, outside of a first-round exit each for Towns and Russell, 14 games for Beasley with the Denver Nuggets in 2019 and Beverley’s 59 playoff games make up the majority of their experience.
That would be a huge continuity advantage for the Suns, and match-wise, they have got Deandre Ayton to throw at Towns. Edwards wanted his hands full with Mikal Bridges, and Chris Paul leads the Suns ‘offensive, which ended with the NBA’s second-best turnover percentage in Monty Williams’ motion river.
The Timberwolves are exciting, but I do not see any gaps that the Suns can not close.
Los Angeles Clippers
(AP Photo / Mark J. Terrill)
Meetings in the season (2-2)
Not a particularly useful try to take much from here.
Paul George missed the initial three showdowns, and the Suns rested four starters for the fourth.
The first on December 13 was a Phoenix loss that Devin Booker and Ayton did not play in, but the answer to a victory on January 6 was driven by 21 offensive rebounds in a match where neither team shot well ind.
February 16 offered perhaps my favorite game of the regular season, a fantastic Booker effort to close out a shooter before sprinting full lane to finish a lob with under four minutes left swinging the game in Suns’ favor. April 6 was “The Ish Wainright Game” as the Suns’ third-string players made the Clippers sweat before finishing Phoenix in the final three minutes after the Phoenix deficit went as high as 39 in the third quarter.
The big picture
The Clippers are the obvious choice for the most difficult draw. George is back, and the additions of Norman Powell and Robert Covington at the trade deadline are new wrinkles compared to last year’s Western Conference Finals.
For the 43-game stretch George missed, however, the Clippers did not really take any significant steps up and found some confidence that could continue into the first round. Reggie Jackson shot 40 percent. Luke Kennard had an average of 11 points per game. match, and Marcus Morris was on one lived 16.3 at 43.5% shooting.
The depth beyond George is where Powell will have to have a real impact to lift this offense to become a significant enough threat to the Suns. In last year’s series, Jackson posted 20.3 points per night. Could he be the other banana again? Is Powell capable of becoming enough of a threat to enter the conversation as a potential candidate, if not?
I can not see it. What I do, however, is how Ty Lue would throw in his infamous mid-series adjustments and make this series as much painful as possible for Phoenix. The Clippers showed in last year’s series how they manage to just keep hanging around in games, making it a task to put them away.
And to go back to the six games that the Suns won four of to advance, they needed Booker’s 40-point triple-double, Cam Payne’s game of his life AND Valley-Oop, Ayton’s incredible game 4 and Paul’s masterful end of game 6.
It would not be near as difficult this time, but it would still be a daunting task, even in five games. And then there’s all this speculation about Kawhi Leonard potentially returning this season.
Like I said, obvious choice.
New Orleans Pelicans
(AP Photo / Matt York)
Meetings in the season (3-1)
Another dose of games to not get much from. The Pelicans ‘big acquisition of the season CJ McCollum was still in Portland for the Suns’ first two wins in the meetings.
The third included McCollum, but not Paul during the beginning of the Suns’ adjustment without Point God, while a win in the final matchup on March 15 was still a bit of a grind before the Suns pulled away in the fourth quarter.
The big picture
Here’s the sleeper pick!
Head coach Willie Green, Williams’ senior assistant the two seasons prior to this one, won the tactical match between those two sides in the regular season. He knows the Suns’ system better than anyone who’s not with Phoenix at the moment. The Pelicans beat the Suns in late February in part because of Green’s game plan to defend the Point Book with Paul injured.
And then the Suns scored 30+ in all four quarters three weeks later to hang 131 on New Orleans’ mediocre defense.
The X factor here is how fast the Pelicans have come on since McCollum’s arrival. He has averaged 24.3 points per game. 49.3% shooting since his arrival, and in the 28 games since McCollum made his debut, New Orleans is in eighth place in offensive rating and in 13th place in defensive rating. Not too shabby!
To return to two themes from our section on Minnesota: McCollum, Brandon Ingram, and Jonas Valanciunas present serious challenges to a defense. Bridges on McCollum is easy enough, but who takes the big and ragged Ingram? Wings of that size have always been a problem for this particular Suns group (like George last post-season), and we’ve seen in the past how Valanciunas are a handful for Ayton. Rookie Herb Jones, an excellent defender for his level of experience, would at least be a small nuisance for Booker and Paul to deal with as well. Devonte ‘Graham could be hot any night. Larry Nance Jr. is good.
Like the Timberwolves, though, the Suns have such a huge advantage when it comes to how they flow together as a team, and McCollum has been with the Pelicans for two months. Zion Williamson getting into the mix would be a boost, but is he coming off the bench? Are you starting? How does he play with McCollum and Valanciunas, who has not yet played with Williamson?
Young, key players in the rotation like Jones, Jose Alvarado, Jaxson Hayes, Naji Marshall and Trey Murphy III are also just getting used to legitimate minutes on a decent NBA team. It’s a lot of potential food for Paul and the company to target.
I feel confident in designating this as the second opponent that would give the Suns the most fits, but in the way we are talking about raw prospects at the top of the draft. High ceilings, low floors.
San Antonio Spurs
(AP Photo / Eric Gay)
Meetings in the season (4-0)
The Suns had a handful of wins this season that were tougher than they needed to be thanks to a hard-working opposition that held on despite a big talent gap. The thing is, there’s so much talent in the league right now that even teams as close to the bottom as San Antonio can beat you every night if it has the energy and performance, and the Spurs always did that against Phoenix.
November 22 was another back-to-back match to be earned after the Spurs reduced the Suns’ lead to five with six minutes left before a 108-0 run of 108 seconds. Two weeks later, on January 6, the match was a draw to 88 after six minutes until Paul dominated the crunch time.
January 17 was again close, and a 48-point outing from Booker was the deciding factor in getting a blowout in the fourth quarter. San Antonio was able to continue to be annoying and make the Suns deserved winners on January 30th. A lineup change in the fourth quarter by Wainright on the 5th inspired a 36-19 comeback in the final frame.
The big picture
I know Gregg Popovich is the boogeyman around these parts. I also encourage you to ease any anxiety he would give you by taking a look at this Spurs list.
Dejounte Murray deserved his All-Star nod. However, can he take over a playoff series? His supportive cast of Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Lonnie Walker IV, Jakob Poeltl and Josh Richardson are all the types of players most teams want. Like the fourth-to-ninth best player.
We’re at the point where we’re not really talking about the good basketball team. San Antonio is averaging 17th place in offense and 16th in defense. The only statistics that stand out are that Spurs are just ahead of the second-best turnover percentage offensively, allowing the third fewest 3s per game and having the third-best field goal percentage allowed at the edge. These could translate into playoff success if this team was more skilled.
And again, like Minnesota, this is a young and untested core of players when it comes to playoff basketball. Looking at their four leaders in minutes, Johnson and Vassell would make their debut, while Murray got 16 games under his belt before turning 22 in two different seasons of the final Spurs postseasons. Poeltl, meanwhile, went twice with the Toronto Raptors before starting all seven games in San Antonio’s first-round exit in 2019.
All four of these series could be swept considering how much better the Suns have been than any other this year, and this series would have the highest probability of cost.