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Three Observations From The Wolves' Win Over The Suns

by Julian Andrews
Web Editorial Associate Follow

The Wolves got a much-needed blowout win over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night. With the 118-91 victory, the Wolves started off a very important Western Conference road trip on a high note and have now climbed to just one game under .500 and two games out of the No. 8 seed. 

Here are a few things I noticed…

Okogie’s Offensive Growth

Josh Okogie had the best game of his young career in Phoenix, finishing with 21 points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals. Okogie has always been a sparkplug, but he’s starting to make some very heady plays as well. When he’s getting out in transition—which happens a lot—he’s no longer only crashing to the rim at full speed, he’s keeping his eyes open. In the last few games he’s shown off some solid chemistry with Taj Gibson, who has in his own right been doing a good job picking spots for Okogie to dish to. The way Okogie barrels to the rim reminds me of Russel Westbrook, but the young rookie has a somewhat limited set of finishing moves once he gets there. Learning to pass to the open big man when defenses help on him is opening up Okogie’s game immensely. That’s not to say he’s a bad finisher—it feels like every game he nails some kind of circus shot.

Though Okogie was defined as a “three-and-D” prospect coming into the league, his offense is actually more built around his driving ability and his midrange game than his long-range shooting. However, developing a three-point shot is crucial for the next phase of his development. As a rookie, Okogie doesn’t have the bevy of moves to turn to that more polished offensive players might. That makes his shooting even more important as it is one of the main ways for him to keep his defenders on their toes. He’s been letting it fly with confidence lately and it’s clear that Okogie’s teammates and coaches want him to shoot the ball when he’s left open. Last night that patience paid off. Okogie went four-of-seven from beyond the arc, mostly on kick-outs after he was left open. If defenses are going to give Okogie those shots, he has to knock them down—this looks like it could be the start of something significant.

Okogie’s main calling card is still his defense. He is tenacious and aggressive, and has shown that he is capable making extremely intelligent choices on that end of the floor as well. However, foul trouble has been a problem lately. As opponents are learning Okogie’s defensive style they’re learning to manipulate him into spots he doesn’t want to be in, forcing him to foul. Okogie has to either learn how to get out of those situations without being whistled, or avoid them in the first place—the Wolves need him to stay on the floor.

Expected Dominance 

It’s very important in the league to take care of business. No team does it all the time, but teams that consistently beat teams who are worse than them always end up in better position come playoff time. That may sound like a no-brainer, but pay attention to NBA scores every day and you will be shocked how many upsets there are. When teams miss out on the playoffs or homecourt advantage by a couple spots, it’s not because they are losing tight contests with the teams directly around them in the standings, it’s because they dropped games to worse teams months ago. Tiebreakers are important, but good teams don’t need them—the best teams don’t let things get close. 

What’s encouraging about this Wolves win is not only that they got the victory over an inferior opponent, but they did it by dominating in the categories you would expect them to. The Suns were missing prized rookie Deandre Ayton and backup big Richuan Holmes, leaving them relying on a combination of Dragan Bender and Quincy Acy to hold down the frontcourt. Neither player is overtly bad, but both are worse than Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson. In such a matchup, you would expect the Wolves to dominate the boards and get their big men going. That’s exactly what happened on Tuesday.

It’s hard to overstate the Wolves’ rebounding dominance—Phoenix simply had nobody that could keep Minnesota off the glass. The Wolves won the rebounding battle 64-34, including a 20-to-5 advantage on the offensive end. That is absolute annihilation. The Wolves knew this was an area of strength and they took advantage—not only did Towns have 18, Wiggins have nine and Gibson seven, but the Suns were so focused on throwing multiple bodies at Minnesota’s forwards that many other Wolves players were able to do damage on the glass. Eight Wolves players had more than four rebounds—that’s the type of team effort that you need to win rebounding battles. Phoenix’s guards only had six combined rebounds the entire game. One of the great misunderstandings of the NBA is that big men need to do all the rebounding. Teams that exclusively rely on their centers to do all the rebounding get out-rebounded when opposing guards crash the glass. That didn’t happen to the Wolves on Tuesday. 

Bayless’ Sneaky Value 

You never know when a player is going to step up. While the addition of Bayless to the team in the Philly trade didn’t make headlines, he was the most important piece of that deal on Tuesday night.

With Jeff Teague and Tyus Jones both out with injuries, Bayless led all Wolves guards in minutes and scored 14 points including four three-pointers. He also had seven assists. Sometimes it’s nice to throw out a different look at the point of the offense—it keeps both the opposition and the Wolves on their toes and defies the opposition playbook a little. 

Bayless isn’t a guy who will be getting many minutes at all when the Wolves are at full strength—Jeff Teague is too good and Tyus Jones is too promising—but he will undeniably have a role to play whenever the team is shorthanded. On Tuesday night Bayless showed that he is a more than capable backup that the Wolves can call on when they need a little support. That role is an important one on the team—you simply never know when you’ll need another body. It’s not an easy thing in the NBA to stay ready to play when you’re not seeing the court, but Bayless has proven himself to be the ultimate professional—there’s a reason he’s stuck around in the league this long.