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Published Time: 27.04.2024 - 08:13:08 Modified Time: 27.04.2024 - 08:13:08

PHOENIX — If we’re to consider the early nuance for the Suns’ Game 3 against the Timberwolves, it was that Phoenix figured out how to attack Minnesota’s aggressiveness while matching the defensive aggression on the other end. Anthony Edwards, Suns

PHOENIX — If we’re to consider the early nuance for the Suns’ Game 3 against the Timberwolves, it was that Phoenix figured out how to attack Minnesota’s aggressiveness while matching the defensive aggression on the other end.

The Suns took advantage of the T-Wolves’ ball pressure and got downhill, piling up the foul trouble on the opponent and getting to the free-throw line 15 times in the first quarter alone. They ran actions even off junked-up offensive possessions.

On defense, they heavily blitzed young Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards.

But those tweaks devolved into Minnesota looking like the team with the ability to react and swing back. The Suns never led Friday in a 126-109 loss and now find themselves down 0-3 in the first-round series as the T-Wolves have begun to rewrite the labels placed on their stars, their role players and perhaps their franchise.

Edwards finished with 36 points on 23 shots while adding nine rebounds, five assists and two steals.

“Today he was a little more aggressive for himself,” T-Wolves head coach Chris Finch said. “Even so, the decisions to punch gaps were good ones. They started in a different look and then they kept moving to different things and he just kept handling it all and maintained his aggressiveness.”

It has been like a time machine back to Suns guard Devin Booker’s early evolution, only this time the 22-year-old Edwards is not on a 19-win club. He’s the head of a team that won 56 games, a single victory away from the best record in the conference.

“I just know the gameplan is being a high wall, put two on me,” Edwards said. “When Rudy (Gobert) roll(s), it’s going to pull one side in. So one corner is going to be open. Or they going to bump Rudy on the roll so the wing going to be open. If they don’t put two on me, I’m going to attack.”

His growth has led to seeing those new looks as Booker long ago learned. Edwards entered the day fifth in the playoffs with 20.5 assist points created.

He’s been the best player in a series that features a Suns Big Three of Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal.

It wasn’t always that easy for him. Edwards said he’s finally gotten the feel of deeply scouting a playoff series.

“Last year and early this year, they were putting two guys on him and he didn’t really like that,” Gobert said. “I feel like over the course of the year, he started to realize and embrace that when they put two on you, it’s the highest form of respect. … He’s put the work in.”

For example: With Phoenix sending hard doubles on ball screens of Edwards at points of the game Friday, they were leaving Minnesota’s weakside corner three open.

The T-Wolves did not take advantage in the first half. In the second, they sure as hell did.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the 39% three-point shooter on the year, hit four treys in a third that like Games 1 and 2 spiraled on the Suns.

Minnesota made the adjustments to find him.

“Whatever the game kind of needs, he’s really delivered,” Finch said of Alexander-Walker, who had been traded twice in the past few years before finding a key reserve role on the T-Wolves’ bench in 2023-24. “Whether it’s shot-making or attacking a closeout, running the point and then guarding, he’s been incredible.”

Early on, the pace was there for the Suns. The more aggressive defensive gameplan at least got their activity levels high. But Minnesota got decent paint looks out of those possessions even with Phoenix’s weakside rotations, for the most part, showing up.

The Suns in the first quarter got two fouls apiece on Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns and Mike Conley.

And yet they never could make a push with Minnesota’s rotations altered and some of its best players off the court.

With Suns starting guard Grayson Allen out with his resprained ankle and Royce O’Neale in his starting spot, it was Eric Gordon, who of late had appeared hesitant, letting it rip.

But the usual Jekyll-Hyde second half hit Phoenix like a ton of bricks after it entered the third quarter down just 59-53.

When the Suns missed shots in the first half, the offense stagnated in the second.

When they spaced the court in the first quarter, they went to heavy isolation post touches for Kevin Durant soon after.

When they got nine threes up in the first quarter and hit four, they got only two up in the second quarter and five in the third before desperately playing without a center down big in the fourth quarter.

Minnesota adjusted, outscoring Phoenix 36-20 in the third.

Gobert again anchored the defense and added 19 points and 14 rebounds by the end of the game.

Like Edwards, his evolution is part of why the Suns are down 0-3. Long maligned as a guy who can be played off the court, Gobert went without a block on the night but appeared to strike fear into a Suns team that shot just 50% in the paint and got outscored by 20 points there. Hunting the big man in isolations didn’t work, either.

So in the tunnel at Footprint Center as Phoenix’s players answered questions the hometown fans’ boos, a Timberwolves staffer reminded his players as they reached the locker room that they only had “13 more.” As in, wins to bring home a title.

It’s nice to be in a position to look ahead.

And to paint the picture of which team looks more steady, more capable of taking a punch and more mature, Edwards wasn’t biting when asked if the T-Wolves saw signs of the Suns losing their spirit during the third quarter.

“Nope! We don’t think we broke they spirit ’til we win Game 4,” Edwards said. “We got to win Game 4 and then we can say we broke their spirit. You never know, man. A lot of crazy things happen. We got to come out and be the most desperate team once again.”

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