Timberwolves-Mavericks: 5 things to watch in Game 5 with Minnesota showing signs of life

The Timberwolves ain’t dead yet; the Mavericks didn’t get rid of them.

After a 105-100 Game 4 win to stave off elimination at the hands of Dallas, here are a few things to keep an eye on as Minnesota once again tries to stay alive back at Target Center in Game 5 on Thursday:

After watching Luka Dončić cook with Jaden McDaniels as his primary defender in the first three games of the Western Conference finals, and Kyrie Irving move comfortably whether he had Anthony Edwards or Mike Conley on him, the Wolves shook up the matchups for a must-win Game 4 — Edwards on Dončić, McDaniels on Irving, Conley back on Derrick Jones Jr.

DALLAS, TEXAS - MAY 28:  Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks is defended by Anthony Edwards #5 of the Minnesota Timberwolves during the first half in Game Four of the Western Conference Finals at American Airlines Center on May 28, 2024 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 took on the assignment of guarding Luka Dončić in Game 4. (Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images)

Necessity, as Wolves head coach Chris Finch told it, was the mother of this particular invention.

"I mean, we were down 3-0. Just shuffling the deck,” Finch said, according to Wolves beat reporter Dane Moore. “Ant's good on-ball, good at navigating screens. Maybe a little length on Kyrie could help. Obviously, length on Dončić hadn't really been effective, hasn't been bothering him as much. So we just tried something different."

Different was good — for one night, at least, and maybe for more.

Dončić finished with a customarily gaudy stat line: 28 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists, good for his sixth triple-double of these playoffs, one shy of Wilt Chamberlain for second place on the all-time list for most triple-doubles in a single postseason. (Nikola Jokić set the high-water mark last spring.) But it took him 21 shots to collect those 28 points, and he had a tougher time bulldozing the burlier Edwards — against whom he shot 4-for-14 in Game 4, according to’s matchup data:

Irving, on the other hand, struggled to get much of anything going, managing just two field-goal attempts when he had McDaniels on him en route to 16 points on 6-for-18 shooting — his second-lowest field-goal percentage of this postseason, ahead of only Game 2 against Oklahoma City.

"He has a huge impact," Irving said of the McDaniels matchup. "I mean, he is a 6-foot-9 wing defender that I'm seeing now for the first time from the start of the game.”

Neither McDaniels nor Edwards did their work in a vacuum, though. The rest of the Wolves’ longer-limbed defenders — chiefly Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kyle Anderson, often with Rudy Gobert lurking behind as the last line of defense — made it tougher for Dallas’ stars to create space off the bounce, get to their preferred spots and lock into the kind of shot-making rhythm they’d found so consistently in Games 1 through 3.

With their season on the line, Minnesota’s defenders brought a higher level of physicality and a renewed commitment to getting through screens, closing down passing lanes and doing everything they could to take away clean looks. The result was a performance commensurate with the Wolves’ top-ranked defense. Dallas mustered a measly 85.7 points per 100 possessions in the half-court in Game 4, according to Cleaning the Glass, a mark that would’ve finished dead last in half-court scoring efficiency over the full season, and that represented the Mavericks’ worst half-court performance of this series, their second-worst of these playoffs and one of their 10 worst outings in a campaign that has lasted 98 games.

This is what the Wolves are capable of defensively: shutting off the interior (just 22% of the Mavs’ field-goal attempts came at the rim, and they shot 18-for-33, 54.5%, in the paint), keeping a lid on role players (19 points on 22 shots for P.J. Washington, Jones Jr. and Josh Green) and finding a way to make even elite talents have to pitch near-perfect games to beat them. And in Game 4, they finally disrupted Luka and Kyrie enough to get on the board.

Can they do it again in Game 5? Or, after a day to digest the film, diagnose the problem areas and prescribe antidotes, will Dončić and Irving deliver the coup de grâce?

“I love it,” Irving told reporters after Game 4. “I relish in these types of battles.”

After watching Luka and Kyrie take turns inciting national discourse over the relative merits and efficacy of drop coverage, Ant decided it might be fun to take a turn torching it, too:

Through three games against Dallas, Edwards had shot just 12-for-31 (38.7%) outside the paint and 10-for-27 (37%) on pull-up jumpers. In Game 4, though, the newly minted All-NBA selection went 6-for-12 outside the paint and 7-for-16 (44%) on pull-ups — including the dagger with 38.8 seconds to go, which Edwards stepped into comfortably just inside the 3-point arc with Mavs center Daniel Gafford leaning back toward the rim.

“He got exactly to the spot he wanted to get to,” Wolves All-Star big man Karl-Anthony Towns said after the game.

Which, to be fair, is a spot that the Mavs would typically be pretty comfortable with him getting to — or, at least, prefer to him getting all the way to the rim — considering that long 2-pointer was about a 39% shot for Edwards during the regular season. (He has knocked down more than half of them in this postseason, though.) Just as the Wolves shouldn’t have overreacted to Luka and Kyrie’s pull-ups earlier in the series by tossing their drop defense, the Mavs shouldn’t overreact to a handful of tough Ant makes by dramatically changing their strategy — especially not in a series they still lead 3-1.

Those buckets, though, offered a reminder that Dallas isn’t the only team with a dude capable of generating and cashing in those looks pretty much whenever he wants to. Especially when, as they were in Game 4, teammates like Towns (25 points on 9-for-13 shooting in a desperately needed offensive breakout), McDaniels and Alexander-Walker (a combined 4-for-9 from 3-point range) are making shots to force Dallas to unclench its half-court defense just a bit.

“Late in that fourth, because KAT and Jaden was knocking them down, I was able to just get anywhere I wanted,” Edwards said.

After logging just 10 drives to the basket in Game 1 as the Mavs forced him to play in a crowd and pass out of nearly half of his forays into the paint through the first three games, a version of Edwards who feels more freedom of movement can be an awfully dangerous player for any defense to deal with — especially when he’s able to come off a screen and find himself confronted by nothing but a retreating defender and opportunity.

“Whether I miss it or make it, I can live with that,” Edwards said. “I haven’t been doing that the last three games of this series. I’ve been going to the corner and not shooting the ball and not being aggressive. Yeah, that won’t happen anymore. Any time, late in the fourth, I’m going to shoot it. Every time.”

I noted before Game 2 that Dereck Lively II led the Mavs in overall plus-minus in the 2024 NBA playoffs, and that his two-way productivity — as a dive man and lob threat in the pick-and-roll, as a complementary playmaker in space, as a persistent threat on the boards on both ends, and as a fearsome rim protector — made him one of the most important contributors to Dallas’ run through the Western Conference playoffs. An inadvertent knee to the head from Towns knocked Lively out in the second quarter of Game 3 and rendered him a spectator for Game 4.

In a related story, after shooting 56% at the rim in Game 1 and 52% there in Game 2, the Wolves shot 77% on the interior in Game 3 and 68% in Game 4, with Minnesota outscoring Dallas by four points in a shaky three-minute cameo by lightly used veteran Dwight Powell.

Gafford has continued to provide an impediment during his shifts, blocking six shots in the last two games and holding the Wolves to 7-for-14 shooting against him at the rim. When he’s been off the floor, though, Minnesota has seized the opportunity. Edwards has piled up 51 drives to the basket in the last two games. After three dismal offensive performances, Towns finally got himself going in Game 4 in large part by attacking the paint, especially early in the third quarter, and looked much more comfortable doing it against Powell and the just-returned Maxi Kleber than he did against Lively.

“With him and Gafford being able to sub in and out for each other, they keep that rim protection and keep that ability to be athletic down there and make plays,” Conley said after Game 4. “When you don’t have that, and Gafford’s not playing 48 minutes, there are spells where we can get downhill and get to the paint and try to finish, and utilize that to our advantage. I’m sure he was missed for them tonight.”

It’s unclear at this point if the Mavericks will continue to miss him in Friday night’s Game 5 …

… but if he’s not, Mavs head coach Jason Kidd will need to find some answers to mind the store on the interior when Gafford needs a breather. If he can’t, a Wolves offense that has ticked up a bit as the series has gone on might find enough oxygen to turn the spark it found in Game 4 into a full-fledged fire.

I’ll admit: When the Mavs opened the conference finals by basically completely leaving Kyle Anderson alone whenever he touched the ball, I started wondering just how big a role he could play in this series if Minnesota was going to be playing 4-on-5 on offense whenever he was on the floor.

Oh, me of little faith.

Through four games, the Wolves have outscored Dallas by one point in the 79 minutes that Anderson has played and have been outscored by nine points in the 113 minutes he sat. He’s made 12 of his 19 2-point shots and has a 14-to-2 assist-to-turnover ratio in the series.

“He finds the right spaces,” Finch said after Game 4. “He gets the ball to the right people. His handling, his screening, his play-calling … he got us into some really clever stuff tonight. Just understanding how to get guys involved.”

Anderson has been as successful as anybody on Minnesota’s roster when it comes to bodying up Dončić on his drives and making his fouls count on Dallas’ MVP finalist. He’s the guy who gets the offensive rebound and immediately looks up to find a teammate for a kill-shot 3. He’s the guy who takes shot-blocker Gafford a step out toward deeper waters rather than trying to get all the way to the shore.

“He does everything that we need,” Edwards said. “He’s, like, the X-factor.”

He’s the guy who recognizes the value in dumping it down to Gobert — even if that can be an adventurous proposition — if it means letting Rudy throw an extra shoulder-block into Luka on the mismatch down low. He’s the guy Finch can trust inbounding the ball with a three-point lead in the closing seconds, knowing he’ll read out the options on the play call and find the one that leads to paydirt:

And he’s the guy who knows the Wolves have to get their shooters going and takes it upon himself to run point to get them clean looks — even if he’s not actually running point and is just literally pointing to where the ball’s supposed to go:

“I was dribbling the ball — I was damn sure about to shoot it,” Edwards said. “And I seen him point at Big Fella, and I’m like, ‘OK, cool.’”

Maybe Alexander-Walker, who’d been 1-for-10 from 3-point range in the first three games of this series, and Towns, fresh off of going 0-for-8 from distance in Game 3, would’ve gotten themselves going and knocked down important shots without SloMo literally waving them into position, loping over to set pin-in screens for them and making sure they got open opportunities. Luckily for Minnesota, though, we’ll never have to find out; it turns out that when the defense isn’t really guarding you, you can get an awful lot of work done.

“Kyle’s special,” Towns said. “He’s special.”

Your mileage on SloMo’s specialness might vary, but …

… if Minnesota’s going to keep this up, Towns is going to have to be.

The Wolves are 31-11 this season when KAT scores 20 or more points, 18-6 when he has four or more assists, and 30-17 when he “uses” at least 25% of their offensive possessions, finishing the trip with either a shot attempt, foul drawn or turnover. They’re 28-11 when he shoots 50% or better from the field; they’re 30-7 when he makes at least 40% of his 3-pointers.

All of which is to say: When Towns is good — not even necessarily great — the Wolves tend to win. Like, a lot. And to beat this Mavericks defense three more times, they’ll need him to, at a minimum, consistently be an active and efficient participant in the offense.

Towns is the wild card: the deceptively nimble driver who can bulldoze smaller 4s and sprint past slower 5s, the 7-foot facilitator who actively looks to dime up Gobert, and — perhaps most importantly for this Wolves offense — the quick-trigger sharpshooter who can fire away in the face of an onrushing closeout. When he’s making quick decisions with the ball, and when he’s letting it fly in rhythm, it becomes a hell of a lot harder to load five bodies between Edwards and the rim.

“It means I can operate — I think that’s the main thing,” Edwards said of his teammates’ shot-making in Game 4. “It’s like a pride thing: When your man scores, whether you supposed to be in a gap or not, you don’t want him to keep scoring. So if these guys hit shots, the gaps are going to get more open and more open and more open.”

But while Conley, McDaniels, Alexander-Walker and Naz Reid hitting shots can expand those windows, it’s Towns who has to combine his size and talent into the crowbar to pry them clear in the first place. When he plays off the catch quickly, rather than stopping the ball to survey the field and give Dallas’ amoebic defense a chance to reset and reload, and finds the right balance between popping to the perimeter and attacking downhill, the Wolves become a much tougher cover, have a much better chance of matching the Mavericks’ high-end firepower — and have much higher odds of living to see Game 6.