Anthony Edwards sets tone for Suns series, charming even childhood hero Kevin Durant

Anthony Edwards sets tone for Suns series, charming even childhood hero Kevin Durant

MINNEAPOLIS — He feels magnetic in these moments. The ball leaves his hands. He watches it drop through the net. Anthony Edwards erupts, and you feel glued.

Fans at Target Center know the feeling. Teammates and coaches do, too. But the true test of Edwards’ gravitational pull might have happened late in the third quarter of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 120-95 shellacking of the Phoenix Suns in Round 1 of the NBA playoffs.

Edwards had already been on a tear. Stepbacks, yo-yo turnaround jumpers, 3-pointers from the top of the key. You name the shot, Edwards had essentially tried it, or thought about trying it. Flames felt necessary. The head shaking had already begun.

And then with 47.7 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Edwards drifted to the left wing, stopped and slingshotted a trey with Kevin Durant extending his arm to contest.

The ball left his hands. Edwards watched it drop through the net. Edwards erupted, and even Durant seemed glued. Durant tried to look away, his eyes darting up toward the rafters clouded in white T-shirts. But Edwards stared him down, barked at him and pounded his chest. Durant couldn’t avoid him for long. He found Edwards’ eyes and smiled widely.

The charisma charmed even the 14-time NBA All-Star.

“Um, I think everybody knows that’s my favorite player of all time,” Edwards said, “so that was probably one of the best feelings ever in my whole life, for sure.”

Durant described the scene as “just hoop.”

“You get hot, you make tough shots, you’re going to feel excited about yourself,” Durant said. “He got it going.”

But it’s the reaction that matters. This was a basketball admirer entranced by a combination of competitiveness and showmanship. This was a superstar recognizing another, and proverbially tipping his cap. And it was all of this, happening organically in a pivotal Game 1 against a team that figured to poke and prod him enough to prevent these types of explosions from becoming possible.

Therefore, coach Chris Finch and veteran guard Mike Conley spoke about Edwards’ performance with pride. It was almost as if Game 1 crystallized Edwards’ year-over-year growth.

“We talked a lot about our mental state in these games in the playoffs,” Conley said. “He turned it over a few times. Maybe in the past, he gets a little angry, gets a tech.”

Indeed, Phoenix flustered Edwards for as long as possible. Edwards turned the ball over four times in the first half. Defenders swiped the ball from him. He flung a couple of passes into traffic. But for a midrange jumper and a couple of finishes at the rim, Edwards’ movements were impeded consistently.

He probed, over and over, and the Suns defense prevented him from hitting the gas pedal that often makes it look like he’s bouncing the ball downhill.

“First half,” Edwards said, “I was nonexistent.”

Defensive feistiness from Jaden McDaniels and Nickeil Alexander-Walker kept Minnesota in front. Rudy Gobert’s constant securing of rebounds defensively, even if they arrived by way of tap-outs, also limited Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal’s potential combustion. At one point, the sellout crowd of 19,478 fans was feeling itself so much that it chanted overrated, overrated, overrated as Durant sunk his 17th and 18th points of the game at the free-throw line.

Aggravating the four-time scoring champion appeared on the verge of backfiring by the middle of the third quarter. Durant, specifically, floated in an 11-foot runner, buried a 16-foot pullup jumper, connected on a 25-foot 3-pointer and even drained another 15-footer from the elbow.

Once, after the shot fell through the net, Edwards stared him down in disbelief.

“He made like four or five straight buckets like it was nothing,” Edwards said. “And I became a fan at one point. Like, I was out there, like, ‘Goddamn, he nice.’”

Coincidence or not, inspired or not, that’s about the time Edwards entered game-breaker mode himself. He drilled a setback. He banked a shot from around the free-throw line. He even chiseled his way into the interior and tossed in a turnaround hook shot.

From then on, he was off to the races. Edwards pivoted at the elbow, swished the shot, trotted down to the other end of the court, nodded his head and yelled: “Let’s f—ing go … Yeahhhhhhhhhhhh.” He inside-out dribbled Durant, stepped back, leaped into the air, double-clutched and scored, raising his arms into the sky while asking for a foul. He snipered in the 3-pointer and stared down Durant. He even hoisted a 3-pointer from the top of the key, made the bucket and turned toward Justin Jefferson, who was hollering excitedly from his floor seats.

Alexander-Walker, whose mind had been fixating on every defensive possession (which is how you limit Devin Booker to 18 points on 5-of-16 shooting), snapped out of focus and realized what Edwards was doing.

“At one point in time, you’re just like, ‘What is going on?’” Alexander-Walker said. “Like, that’s the common theme when you’re playing with Ant. He’s just spectacular. When you see him in those zones, it’s just Ant trying to win.”

Finch viewed the fireworks from the bench. Two thoughts swirled in his mind: keep feeding Edwards, and this is fun to watch.

“Sometimes like in the past he’s had those runs lead to a bad run just trying to do too much,” Finch said. “But you can see the great growth for him in that he played under control.”

It’s not as if this was Edwards’ first playoff barrage. He’s poured in five 30-point games. He scored 30 three times last year against the Denver Nuggets. This performance, though, occurred against a team that had limited him to 14.3 points per game on 31 percent shooting in their three matchups this season.

It set a tone. It set expectations. Wolves fans exited the building Saturday evening assuredly like this team might really be different. And the reason lies in a concoction that starts with the man who makes you smile.

(Photo: Patrick McDermott / Getty Images)

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