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NAW erases Suns lead, Game 1 advantage with big performance

May we recommend Nickeil Alexander-Walker Handi Wipes Week for those who enjoyed Naz Reid Beach Towel Night?

Should an opponent’s lead be erased? Call for NAW, the positive impact player with the negative-sounding initials.

On Saturday at Target Center, Alexander-Walker came off the bench to beat stars and starters and produced what might have been the best big game of his career: the Timberwolves’ 120-95 victory over Phoenix in their first game of the NBA Playoffs.

“Man, I look at his plus-minus,” Anthony Edwards said. “He was a plus-28 on the floor. He was our MVP tonight. He made every play we needed, offensively and defensively.”

That plus-28 was the best rating produced in the game. The Suns led by three in the first quarter when Alexander-Walker entered. He scored immediately after a drive and then hit a three-pointer.

Alexander-Walker finished with 18 points – the most ever by him in a playoff game – along with four rebounds, two assists and four steals, the most ever for a Wolves player off the bench in a playoff game.

Unseen in the box score and evident everywhere was Alexander-Walker’s effort and expertise in fighting through screens to trouble the Suns’ shooters. He was one of the defensemen who limited the Suns’ Devin Booker to 18 points on 5-for-16 shooting from the field.

Naz Reid and Alexander-Walker turned the game around and helped the Wolves combat the Suns’ star power with superior depth. “Those guys have been so big for us all year,” Wolves coach Chris Finch said. “They have so much confidence no matter what role they play or where we need them. We need those guys to produce, and tonight they did a great job.”

Alexander-Walker is the ideal bench player for the Wolves in this series. Without the Wolves’ established pecking order, he could even be an ideal starter.

Point guard Mike Conley had a brutal game, making two of 12 shots, committing uncharacteristically silly fouls and logging just 27 minutes. Alexander-Walker played 28 and hit seven of his 12 shots, including four of his nine three-point attempts.

Conley isn’t big enough to guard the Suns’ best shooters. Alexander-Walker has at least a fighting chance at guarding them all, and his shooting ability can carry the second unit and create space for teammates.

Less than 15 months ago, Alexander-Walker was the “other” player acquired when Wolves basketball boss Tim Connelly traded D’Angelo Russell to acquire Conley. That deal revealed the subtleties of roster building.

Conley brought leadership and maturity to a team that fell apart late last season. Alexander-Walker brought tenacity, versatility and bench scoring. They can all produce impressive numbers and exceed them.

“I mean, Mike is like a big brother,” Alexander-Walker said. “He helped me a lot throughout the season, even up until last year.”

Alexander-Walker stood out last season in the playoffs against the eventual champion Denver Nuggets. He proved invaluable to a team struggling with injuries this season. On Saturday, forward Kyle Anderson left with an injury. That could mean even more minutes for Alexander-Walker in Game 2 at Target Center on Tuesday.

He hopes to hit his shots. He knows he has to defend.

“If you guard, that’s how you stay on the field,” Alexander-Walker said. “It’s not a given that I’m going to photograph what I photographed today every night. It’s a given that I have the ability to monitor every night. If I’m going to provide that every day, then they’ll have to live with it if I go today 4-for-9 and I’m going 1-for-5 tomorrow, god forbid, my defense has allowed me to add value where I can just be here and shoot my shot.

“We have so much talent on this team that I can’t be here just to throw shots. That’s not what has worked for me, especially because of how my career has gone so far.”

If Reid was beach towel worthy, which giveaway should Alexander-Walker honor?

“Man, I don’t know,” Reid said. ‘I’ll have to think about it. But something better. Something better.’

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