Minnesota has not 1, but 2 postseason X-factors

Washington Wizards v Minnesota Timberwolves
Washington Wizards v Minnesota Timberwolves / Stephen Maturen/GettyImages

After beginning their first-round series as the underdog, the Minnesota Timberwolves are now the overwhelming favorites in their bout against the Phoenix Suns. The Wolves defeated the Suns by 25 points in game one before a 105-93 victory in game two.

In the first affair, Anthony Edwards stole the show. The fourth-year guard scored 33 points, grabbed nine boards, and dished out six assists. Off the bench, Nickeil Alexander-Walker poured in 18 points of his own, drilling four triples along the way.

On Tuesday night, Edwards' scoring output dipped. The All-Star swingman scored just 15 points and went 3-of-12 from the floor. However, he added five rebounds and eight assists. Edwards also played frenetic defense against Phoenix star Bradley Beal.

Despite a less-than-stellar scoring output from the Wolves' best player, their talented wing came to play. Jaden McDaniels played a team-high 41 minutes and scored 25 points to go along with eight rebounds. The young forward went 10-of-17 from the field and 2-of-4 from beyond the arc.

Additionally, McDaniels played his usual excellent defense. The lanky wing matched up with both Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, forcing the duo into a myriad of tough shots. Thus far, McDaniels' length has bothered the 6-foot-6 Booker. The Suns' All-Star is just 1-of-6 this series when defended by McDaniels.

Normally, a singular player is anointed as the team's X-factor. This player is a non-star who is poised to shine in bright moments. Think of Caleb Martin in the Miami Heat's unlikely 2023 NBA Finals run, or Bruce Brown who starred during the Denver Nuggets' first-ever championship.

This postseason, the Wolves have two X-factors. Both McDaniels and Alexander-Walker have already burst onto the scene. So far, McDaniels has averaged 17.0 points, while Alexander-Walker is up to 14.0.

Most importantly, each player is crucial to the Wolves' success. Both wings are the only players to record a plus-minus of more than 35 this postseason. And despite Minnesota's early first-round dominance, the Wolves are at a deficit without their X-factors on the floor.

The Timberwolves are a minus-2.5 sans McDaniels and Alexander-Walker—the only negative differentials on the team. The duo's defense has been phenomenal. With Alexander-Walker on the floor, the Suns are shooting a paltry 40.9 percent and have committed 26 turnovers in nearly 60 minutes.

Although McDaniels hasn't had the same statistical effect as Alexander-Walker, the Wolves are still holding the Suns to a sub-45-percent field goal percentage and have forced 30 turnovers in 79 minutes with the 23-year-old wing the hardwood.

Like McDaniels, Alexander-Walker has spent a fair amount of his time defending Booker. In almost 11 minutes matched up with the Suns' star guard, he's forced three turnovers and held Booker to a 42.9 percent clip from the floor.

Defense aside, what makes the duo so special is their efficiency. Both players are shooting above 50.0 percent from the floor. McDaniels has canned 54.2 percent of his shot attempts, while Alexander-Walker holds steady at 50.0 percent.

The dynamic pairing has scored efficiently, accepted the toughest defensive assignments, and taken care of the ball. McDaniels and Alexander-Walker have combined for only five turnovers through the first two contests.

McDaniels' standing is atypical of most X-factors. For one, he's a two-year starter. Secondly, the two-way wing signed a massive $131 million contract in the offseason. Nevertheless, he took a step back this season, as he saw a statistical decline in points, rebounds, assists, field goal, and 3-point percentage.

As for Alexander-Walker, he's the ideal X-factor. A reserve wing who's not even the best bench player on the Wolves. The Virginia Tech product averaged just 8.0 points in 23.4 minutes per game off the pine this season.

Although both players have taken different paths to "X-factor status," they've both been indispensable thus far. If McDaniels and Alexander-Walker continue to perform at such a high-levels, the Wolves are primed for a deep postseason run.