Suns-Timberwolves preview

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By Natalie Rivers By Natalie Rivers

PHOENIX (AP) -- As the Minnesota Timberwolves' playoff hopes continue to fade, the Phoenix Suns are staying in the thick of the race.

Phoenix kicks off a four-game road trip Monday night seeking its fifth win in six games and trying to extend Minnesota's season-worst losing streak to six.

The Suns had the Western Conference's third-worst record on Feb. 18 but have since gone 17-8, climbing within one game of Denver for the eighth and final playoff berth.

The Timberwolves were tied for that spot on March 8, but they lost Ricky Rubio to a season-ending injury the following day and have crumbled. Including that loss to the Lakers when their rookie point guard got hurt, the Timberwolves have dropped 13 of 17 to fall 5 1/2 back of eighth place.

However, one of their wins in that span came at Phoenix, 127-124 on March 12 behind Kevin Love's 30 points.

That ended Minnesota's nine-game losing streak in this series, but the Suns have won five straight at the Target Center while averaging 111.8 points.

Phoenix had its highest-scoring game of the season Saturday, winning 125-105 over a Lakers team missing Kobe Bryant. The Suns blew a late fourth-quarter lead the previous night in a loss at Denver, but that's their only defeat in five games this month.

"Tonight was great, to get a win and bounce back, mentally more than anything, to fight back," said Michael Redd, averaging 18.3 points over the last four games. "We played well this week, so we've got another tough week in front of us and hopefully we can do the same thing."

After visiting Minnesota, Phoenix plays three road games in four nights against teams which would all make the playoffs if the season ended today - Memphis, Houston and San Antonio.

Shannon Brown has provided a spark since replacing an injured Grant Hill in the starting lineup. He scored 24 points Saturday and has averaged 17.6 in eight games since becoming a starter, nearly double what his season average had been.

"I think overall he feels a lot more comfortable right now and obviously he is getting more extended minutes with Grant out," coach Alvin Gentry said, "but I think that it took a little bit of time for him to really relish the freedom that we give him."

The Timberwolves haven't done nearly as well without Rubio.

The current five-game losing streak is their longest since dropping their final 15 last season. Martell Webster took Rubio's starting spot but hasn't made an impact, failing reach double figures in the last seven games.

J.J. Barea has taken over as the starting point guard in the last two games after missing six with a bruised quad, averaging 12.5 points and 7.5 assists, but he has shot 10 of 27 from the field and committed 10 turnovers. Luke Ridnour had been starting but is likely to miss a third straight game Monday with a sprained ankle.

Michael Beasley returned Saturday after missing five games with a toe injury and scored 20 points, but Minnesota lost 99-90 in New Orleans.

The Timberwolves have allowed an average of 107.5 points in their last five games.

"Teams keep shooting a good percentage on us, but we brought it on the defensive end for the most part," said Love, who had 29 points and 12 rebounds. "We just missed shots. It's tough."