Timberwolves vs. Mavericks: Anthony Edwards, Luka Dončić and how the West will be won

The Western Conference’s No. 3 seed, the Minnesota Timberwolves (56-26), will take on the fifth-seeded Dallas Mavericks (50-32) in the 2024 Western Conference finals. It’s the first postseason meeting between the two franchises since 2002, when Dirk Nowitzki outdueled Kevin Garnett and an elite Dallas offense outclassed the Wolves en route to a 3-0 sweep.

A lot has changed since then! For one thing: The first round is no longer a best-of-five affair. For another: Anthony Edwards is no longer 8 months old.

By getting off the mat and punching back.

After shocking the NBA-watching world by taking the first two games of Round 2 in Denver, the Wolves found themselves in shock when the Nuggets roared back with three straight wins, capped by a historic performance from just-crowned MVP Nikola Jokić, to put them on the brink.

You know what they say about wounded animals, though:

Minnesota got level in Game 6 by doling out the most lopsided playoff defeat in Denver franchise history, and then — after falling down by 20 in Game 7, on the road, at that famed Rocky Mountain elevation — absolutely suffocated the Nuggets. The best defense in the business held Jokić and Co. to just 37 points on 35.9% shooting in the second half, dominated the glass, got massive fourth-quarter buckets from a wide array of sources, physically overpowered an exhausted opponent and dethroned the defending champions.

With the top-seeded Thunder falling on the other side of the bracket, Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and Co. now hold home-court advantage in the conference finals. The Wolves sit four wins away from the championship round — a level of success that this franchise has never reached.

The party continues Wednesday in Minneapolis. Bring ya ass, won’t you?

By winning the chess match and the dice rolls.

In the second round, Dallas tailored its defense toward switching screens, showing help and packing the paint, taking away driving lanes for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams and using their towering across-the-board positional size to cut off Oklahoma City’s drive-and-kick game. Coach Jason Kidd bet that if the Mavs could funnel the ball to complementary players like Josh Giddey, Luguentz Dort, Cason Wallace and Aaron Wiggins, then OKC couldn’t score enough to win.

Similarly, the Thunder dialed up aggressive blitzes and traps to try to limit the Mavericks’ stars, and found some success: Both Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving saw their field=goal attempts, touches and usage rate drop significantly from their marks during Round 1 against the Clippers. Coach Mark Daigneault bet that if the Thunder could funnel the ball to the complementary players like PJ Washington, Derrick Jones Jr. and Josh Green, then Dallas couldn’t score enough to win.

Dallas’ bet paid off: Non-SGA and J-Dub Thunderers made just 49 of their 162 3-pointers (30.2%). Oklahoma City’s, though, went bust:

Washington, Jones and Green combined to shoot 43-for-103 (41.7%) from long range. Washington averaged 25.7 points per game across Games 2 through 4, while Jones averaged 19.3 from Games 4 through 6 — massive sources of auxiliary offense in a matchup contested within a vanishingly thin margin. (The total score across six games? 636-636. Dead even.)

And with Oklahoma City clinging to a one-point lead in the final seconds of Game 6, it was Washington who drew a foul in the corner on Gilgeous-Alexander, stepped to the line and rattled in a pair of free throws to seal the victory, sending Dončić — who gutted through the knee sprain he suffered in Round 1 to end the series with three straight triple-doubles — and the Mavs back to the Western finals for the second time in three years. Sometimes, when that perfect hand comes along, if you bet big, you can take the house.

DALLAS, TEXAS - DECEMBER 14: Anthony Edwards #5 of the Minnesota Timberwolves reacts after a three point basket in the second half at American Airlines Center on December 14, 2023 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images)
Anthony Edwards has been the breakout star of these playoffs. Can the Mavs slow him down? (Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images)

Minnesota won the season series, 3-1 … although, as is so often the case when you look back at regular-season results, it’s tough to take too much from those matchups.

For one thing, all four meetings came before the trade deadline, when Dallas completely reorganized its rotation with deals that added Washington and center Daniel Gafford. For another, Dončić missed two of them, while Irving missed three; of the five Mavericks who logged the most minutes against Minnesota during the regular season, only Jones and Tim Hardaway Jr. are likely to play significant roles in this series.

(I feel confident saying that Grant Williams will not.)

(Unless, of course, he descends from the rafters of American Airlines Center like Sting.)

(Which would be kind of sick?)

The one time that Dallas had both Dončić and Irving in uniform, they combined for 69 points on 53 shots in a 115-108 win — one of just six times this season that the Wolves allowed teammates to score 30-plus points. (The other five tandems: Devin Booker and Kevin Durant in November; Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey in December; Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in January; DeMar DeRozan and Coby White in February; Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen in March.)

The top individual scoring performance during the regular-season series, though, belonged to Edwards, who hung 44 on the Mavs in a late-December win:

By and large, though, the length of Jones — Dallas’ primary defensive answer against opponents’ top offensive options, listed at 6-foot-6 with a 7-foot wingspan, fresh off of giving Gilgeous-Alexander and Paul George everything they could handle — seemed to give Minnesota’s All-Star initiator some trouble. According to NBA.com’s matchup data, only Dort and Denver’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope guarded Edwards more frequently during the regular season than Jones, with Edwards scoring just 23 points on 8-for-26 shooting on those possessions.

Expect Ant to see a steady diet of DJJ in this series. And expect Ant — whose regular-season work will almost certainly earn him his first All-NBA selection, and whose stepped-up postseason production (28.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game on .624 true shooting) is putting him in the company of Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Stephen Curry and James Harden — to be intent on setting those regular-season numbers ablaze.

Who (and how) is Mike Conley guarding?

In a battle of two gigantic squads — both of whom overwhelmed their Round 2 opponents with sheer size and physicality on the defensive end and on the offensive boards — we should keep an eye on the smallest guy on the court.

If Wolves All-Defensive Team selection Jaden McDaniels starts on Dončić (as he did in both of the regular-season matchups in which Luka played) and Edwards starts on Irving (as, um, Ant intimated he would immediately after eliminating Denver), then Conley needs another non-guard to, um, guard. I’d be surprised if Wolves coach Chris Finch sticks him on Washington. Given the six-inch, 55-pound difference between Washington and the 6-foot, 175-pound Conley, that seems like an invitation for Dallas to try to pound Conley in the post, which could result in easy baskets, rotations from Minnesota’s bigs leading to passes for easy baskets, or fouls, whether on Conley or a helper.

So he’ll likely shift over to Jones — the lowest-usage and least-threatening perimeter player on the Mavs. That could create opportunities for the savvy veteran, who’s logged 11 steals and 23 deflections in 10 playoff games, to wreak a little havoc as a helper:

But given his size and the fact that he’s just a week removed from missing Game 5 against Denver with a sore right Achilles tendon, Conley will likely have a bullseye on his back against a Mavericks team that loves to play seek-and-destroy in the half-court, with Dončić and Irving adept at calling for ball screens to manipulate matchups and draw preferred targets into one-on-one coverage. I’d expect the Mavs to try to pull Conley into the action by using Jones as a screener on the ball.

Will Minnesota play those pick-and-rolls straight, with McDaniels or Edwards dropping beneath the screen, Conley chasing over the top, and hoping to stay attached enough to prevent Dončić or Irving from pulling up and raining fire? Do they feel comfortable giving up the switch, trusting Conley to use his smarts, hands and quick feet to hold his own against Dallas’ top guns — or, failing that, just being willing to live with isolation buckets rather than putting themselves in rotation and potentially giving up the store?

Or will they — as OKC often did in Round 2, and as the Wolves often did during the regular season — look to blitz the Mavs’ ball-handlers, putting two on the ball to force it out of Luka and Kyrie’s hands, even if it risks giving up some 4-on-3 opportunities behind the blitz? If they do, and if Jones is able to create enough plays on those odd-man rushes, making the most out of his dives and pops as he did against Oklahoma City last round and, at times, against Minnesota during the regular season …

… then the problem of guarding this Mavericks offense becomes awfully tough, even for the best defense in the business.

The problems could also spill over to the other end. Conley shot 51.7% from the field and 52.9% from 3-point range against Dallas during the regular season, with a 19-to-5 assist-to-turnover ratio. In these playoffs, they’re scoring nearly 11 more points-per-100 with him on the court than off it. Against Denver, the differential rose to 16.4 points-per-100; when Ant said that the difference between Minnesota’s performances in Game 5 and Game 6 was that the Wolves got Conley back, he meant it. If Dallas can make the 36-year-old work hard enough on defense that his offensive game starts to wane — or, in a worst-case scenario, bully him to the point that he’s hunted off the floor — then scoring on what’s become one of the stingiest units in the league will get even tougher, too.

I’m incorrigible, so here’s two, briefly:

• Whose role players will make shots? If Dallas continues to get hot shooting and offensive production from the likes of Washington, Jones and, when called upon, Green, it loosens things up for Dončić and Irving. Likewise, when the Mavericks get the ball out of Edwards’ hands, if the swing-swing ends with McDaniels, Naz Reid or Nickeil Alexander-Walker either drilling a 3 or beating a closeout for a drive and finish, that’s a backbreaker for a defense that’s going to be selling out to limit Minnesota’s All-NBA shot creators.

• Will KAT keep this up? Towns has played arguably the best overall ball of his career through these first two rounds. He’s acquitted himself admirably in defensive matchups against Kevin Durant and Nikola Jokić — not something I’m sure many of us would’ve believed possible a month ago — while shooting 56% on 2-pointers and 44% on 3s, and also turning in both the highest assist rate and lowest turnover rate of his postseason career. The Mavs were able to pack the paint as effectively as they did against OKC because they believed they had enough time to sink and recover to contest or snuff out 3s by guys like Chet Holmgren. KAT — with his quick-trigger release, willingness to fire over onrushing contests and ability to beat closeouts with under-control drives to create for himself and his teammates — is a very different animal.

Also: Towns will have to make sure that a less demanding on-ball defensive matchup — say, Washington — doesn’t cause his focus to drift off the ball. Minnesota still needs him to stay locked in.

Wolves in 7

I think this is going to be a war — two huge, physical teams with great defenses, elite individual shot creators, and the potential to bend specific matchups and the overall run of play to their advantage. But I’ve picked against Minnesota the last two rounds, only to feel foolish afterward when the things I’ve loved about this team all season have continued to matter when it counts. At least if I’m wrong this time, it’ll be for a new reason. A thrilling experience.

Minnesota Timberwolves (-185)
Dallas Mavericks (+150)

Game 1: Wed., May 22 @ Minnesota (8:30 p.m., TNT)
Game 2: Fri., May 24 @ Minnesota (8:30 p.m., TNT)
Game 3: Sun., May 26 @ Dallas (8 p.m., TNT)
Game 4: Tue., May 28 @ Dallas (8:30 p.m., TNT)
*Game 5: Thu., May 30 @ Minnesota (8:30 p.m., TNT)
*Game 6: Sat., June 1 @ Dallas (8:30 p.m., TNT)
*Game 7: Mon., June 3 @ Minnesota (8:30 p.m., TNT)

*if necessary