T-wolves take NBA's best defense into series vs. Suns, but can it stop Durant-Booker-Beal trio?

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Defense has been far more of an afterthought than an asset over the checkered history of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who have the second-fewest wins in the NBA since their entry 35 years ago and have advanced out of the first round of the playoffs only once.

This has been quite the season of transformation for the Timberwolves, an improvement that started over the summer with Rudy Gobert. The success of their defense is rooted in his 7-foot-2 presence, too.

“There’s a difference between being the reason you win and being the reason you don’t lose, and Rudy is the reason we don’t lose,” Wolves coach Chris Finch said. “He doesn’t let us lose these games. He’s been this way all season. He’s an incredible floor raiser, and he just brings it and he knows when the team needs him to do this the most.”

The Wolves (56-26) are going to need him Gobert when they open a first-round playoff series with the Phoenix Suns. Game 1 is on Saturday at Target Center, where the Suns (49-33) punctuated a strong finish with a 19-point victory just six days ago.

The Wolves led the NBA in defense in 2023-24 with an average of 106.5 points allowed after finishing 18th in the prior season. They hadn't even been in the top 10 since the departure of Kevin Garnett 17 years ago.

Jaden McDaniels is a lanky lockdown defender on the perimeter at 6-foot-9. Mike Conley is a savvy veteran who can use his quick hands for key steals. Anthony Edwards is active and athletic, the unique star who exerts as much energy defensively as offensively.

But just about every stop can be traced back to the long arms and churning legs of Gobert, the Frenchman in the middle of the lane who has three NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards and could well pick up a fourth later this spring.

“It’s just his presence,” said Wolves assistant coach Elston Turner, who supervises the defense. “They drive the ball in there, and they see him, and they start going out. There’s no stat for that.”

The only obvious reward for the Wolves for posting the second-best record in team history and finishing third in the stacked Western Conference was an extra home game against the Suns.

The Suns won all three matchups with the Wolves, in fact, leading for the entirety of the second halves by at least 10 points. They boast a four-time scoring champ with two championship rings in Kevin Durant, a dynamic star still in his prime in Devin Booker and a dangerous newcomer in Bradley Beal. The trio has 21 combined All-Star selections, that's as strong of a “big three” as there is in the tournament this year.

“It’s a special group,” Beal said. “I want to embrace that, and that’s why I’m here.”

The Suns, who won 10 of their last 14 games, prefer to play small and lean on their shooters in a way that has so far negated the size advantage the Wolves have with Gobert and All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns, who recently returned from a knee injury that kept him out for more than a month. But Finch and his staff have the deeper bench at their disposal.

“We have utmost respect for this basketball team. They have not played their best against us, but we’ve seen them kick everybody’s butt throughout the course of this season,” Suns coach Frank Vogel said. "They have the best defense in the league. Anthony Edwards is one of the most dynamic guys in the league and one of the most difficult guys to stop. They’ve got defensive firepower all over. KAT’s still getting his legs under him. He’ll be better when the playoffs begin. It’s going to be a dogfight.”


Gobert had a rough debut season, carrying the burden of the steep price they paid in the trade with Utah in July 2022, adjusting to new systems and fighting through some minor injuries. Then he literally snapped during a tense timeout in the final regular-season game, taking a swing at teammate Kyle Anderson and drawing a one-game suspension by the team for their first play-in game.

He's been far more comfortable this time around, spending three days at a darkness retreat to center himself in the offseason, finding a better fit with the team chemistry and maintaining good health along the way. Gobert finished second in the league in rebounds per game and sixth in blocks per game.

Having never surpassed the second round with Utah, Gobert has fully realized how much he has to prove to the rest of the NBA this spring.

“I truly believe that our biggest opponent is ourselves," Gobert said. "We’ve seen that last year, this year. I think we have the tools to give problems and to beat anyone. But we also have some problems that can make us lose to anyone.”


Being the primary ballhandler has been an adjustment, but Beal has shown plenty of promise in his transition to point guard. He played well down the stretch and lit up the Wolves last week for 36 points while taking the lead in stifling Edwards on defense.

“I expect him to go out there and be the killer that he is,” Durant said.


Beal missed several extended stretches of his Suns debut season with injuries and played in 53 games. Booker played in 68. Durant logged 75. But the group was together for the last 18 games, when the Suns went 12-8.


The Wolves set a dubious NBA playoffs record two years ago by losing a double-digit-point lead in the fourth quarter three different times in a six-game loss to Memphis. They've been strong finishers this season. Their fourth quarter scoring differential of plus-101 was second behind Boston. The Suns were the worst at minus-195.



Dave Campbell, The Associated Press