HomeSportsThe Timberwolves must learn some hard lessons before they can become championship-caliber

The Timberwolves must learn some hard lessons before they can become championship-caliber

DALLAS – High-stakes playoff series are the ultimate mirror; the revelations a player can make about himself and his team are laid bare.

And as we look into this play-off mirror, several things become clear.

Like Jason Kidd as a championship-level coach, without question or doubt.

As Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving are one of the most powerful big-game duos we’ve seen in recent memory, now five wins away from ultimate validation.

And more importantly, like the Minnesota Timberwolves, who are seeing the hard playoff lessons they need to learn before they can become championship caliber.

The Dallas Mavericks will advance to the NBA Finals in the coming days, barring something historic or unforeseen. The Timberwolves, coming off a 116-107 loss that leaves them three games to none, will begin the evaluation process.

If you lose three consecutive close games in the same way to the same opponent, that says a lot about you, more than it does about the opponent. Young teams, or teams with a lot of inexperience, have difficulty closing matches. It’s the reason the Mavericks have won all three games so far and the Timberwolves can’t crack the code.

The Timberwolves will rue the missed plays; they will complain about the on-the-fly basketball IQ lacking in critical moments, which they excelled at during the first two rounds of these playoffs. They’ll hear the roar of the American Airlines Center crowd, the chants of “sweep” that rained down in the final seconds of this loss.

Minnesota trailed 107–105 with 3:21 to go but did not score another field goal until Anthony Edwards’ layup with 15 seconds left and the game decided. The team scored one field goal in the final three minutes of Game 2, when it squandered a chance to tie the series.

Same in game 1.

Things get mental here, and despite the success on their path to get this far, it’s worth exploring. They don’t give up, they adapt the way they defend and put in extra effort, but it’s the little things that feel so huge.

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“If the opposite were the case, if you were winning those games, you would be confident when you look up and there are four minutes left, you would have positive thoughts,” Mike Conley said. “I can’t speak for everyone, but looking up I’m sure we need to figure this out. We have to be close, together. We gave ourselves a chance, opportunities, we know which part of the game we need to be better at.

Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) grabs a rebound from Dallas Mavericks center Daniel Gafford (21) during the second half in Game 3 of the NBA basketball Western Conference finals, Sunday, May 26, 2024, in Dallas.  (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Karl-Anthony Towns has struggled against the Mavericks throughout the series. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Edwards was confident and defiant even in the locker room before taking the stage after the match. The 22-year-old talked to his teammates about getting one game and spoke openly about making history – as no team in NBA history has come back from an 0-3 deficit to win a series.

And while he didn’t produce his best fourth quarter (four points), he generally performed well in spurts — including a thunderous dunk over Daniel Gafford in the third and a burst that gave the Timberwolves a brief lead before the quarter ended.

“Yeah, I mean, he’s got to play with that burst a little bit more,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “That’s what was missing. And that was the key to everything for us to get some rhythm going, our offense, we were able to get to the core of their defense a little quicker.”

His 26 points, nine rebounds and nine assists were his best performance this series, but he could have done more, especially while watching the show that Dončić and Irving (33 points each) put on against a pretty good defense.

Edwards’ teammate, Karl-Anthony Towns, should have done more, and that’s what the Timberwolves should focus on this season. Towns is a talented and versatile big man, even calling himself the best shooting big man in NBA history, as if Dirk Nowitzki never lived, let alone sat courtside on Sunday night.

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But the harsh judgment of history is coming his way, and that’s not pretty. Towns missed all eight of his three-point attempts and shot 5 for 18 overall, continuing his series-long struggle by shooting exactly 27.8 percent (15 for 54).

In order to make this current setup work — so that the Timberwolves aren’t just satisfied as a franchise that reaches the Western Conference finals — Towns will need to improve his decision-making, otherwise the franchise will have to rethink what a future looks like without him, especially in a second apron luxury tax world.

A four-year, $221 million extension that Towns signed will kick in next season, putting the Timberwolves in that dreaded second apron that will limit their ability to improve their team around the edges.

Towns’ ability to stretch the defense, rebound and defend big opponents while Rudy Gobert handles the majority of the defensive responsibilities makes the Wolves special in that regard. But he couldn’t exploit the Mavericks with smaller defensemen, especially when impressive rookie Dereck Lively II left in the second quarter with a head injury after an accidental knee to the back of the head from Towns.

He became a liability.

Some of that could very well be a learning experience, as in Edwards’ case. Towns played well against the Suns and Nuggets, shooting well in both and limiting the silly mistakes and errors. Or it could be a sign that the Timberwolves can only go so far with him during this period of contention.

It’s not the end; it’s part of NBA history. The Boston Celtics have gone through several iterations of themselves and maybe, just maybe, they’ve finally gotten it right.

This could be the first of many fun moments for the Timberwolves, if they can learn from it. But it’s no guarantee for themselves or Towns.

“He obviously struggled, so it’s hard to watch sometimes,” Finch said. “But you know, he had plenty of buckets here and there. In the second half I was very happy with the way he recovered quite well. But yes, he is struggling, there is no doubt about that at the moment.”

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Only in bursts could the Timberwolves access the best version of themselves. Cases where Conley and Kyle Anderson played a deft two-man game with each other, finding the smallest holes in Dallas’ defense to help Edwards offensively. Conley nailed a 3 on the opening possession of the fourth to give the Timberwolves a 90-89 lead, thanks to Anderson fooling Dallas with an opposite-floor screen.

A few minutes later they tried again, almost instinctively, but the floor was crowded because someone was out of place. It’s those little things, the lack of recognition at times, that have prevented the Wolves from making a real dent in this series.

When they’re at that peak, it’s not hard to see why Edwards is confident, why they think they’re the better team despite the results so far. When asked which stat stood out to him most, Edwards pointed to the free throw disparity, 31-17, in favor of Dallas.

There definitely felt like an inconsistency in the calls, but Dallas has been a physical aggressor throughout the series. The Mavericks are cooler when things get tight, and they get the benefit of the doubt.

“A lot of my fouls were fouls,” said Conley, who picked up his fourth foul in the third quarter. “It’s about consistency on both sides, that’s all we’re asking for.”

Edwards: “That’s all we want. If you call hands-on when Mike makes a mistake, just call it down there. They did a great job tonight. We’re just asking for the same calls down there (on our end).”

Conley: “Consistency.”

The Timberwolves have not found consistency in their moments of truth this series. We’ve seen it happen during this magical run, and the disappointment doesn’t diminish anything they’ve accomplished so far.

It just lets everyone know, with clear eyes, what needs to be done to move forward.

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