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The Minnesota Timberwolves Have Lost Their Way

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The Minnesota Timberwolves are at a loss. Or really, they’re at three; in three straight games, the Wolves have played themselves into an entirely winnable position late in the fourth quarter against the Dallas Mavericks, only to squander it. In Game 1, Minnesota led during the final two minutes before coughing the ball up twice, rushing into two desperate 3s, and losing by three points. The Wolves were up two with just 47 seconds remaining in Game 2, only for Anthony Edwards to throw a pair of passes well over the heads of his teammates—inviting Luka Doncic to take the game into his own hands.

Yet Game 3 was the most damning of all, and the most revealing of where the margins lie in these Western Conference finals. The Mavs and Wolves were tied with four minutes remaining on Sunday night, with Minnesota’s season effectively on the line. “This was gonna be a battle of shotmaking,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said later. Doncic and Kyrie Irving met the moment—feeling out whatever the game required and executing on a series of breathtaking plays. The Wolves, in turn, found every possible way to come up empty: slow-paced offense that led to frantic heaves; a missed free throw; a blown layup; a bungled jump ball; a senseless shot at the worst time; a thwarted drive; and a late, wayward take from long range. Minnesota made just one shot from the field in those final four minutes, long after the game was already decided.

“The whole series, we’ve struggled to close games,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said after Sunday’s 116-107 loss. “These three-minute games that we’re playing—we’re losing ’em. It starts with kind of a mental breakdown on a left corner 3 by [P.J.] Washington when the game’s tied. And that gives ’em just enough breathing room. We didn’t execute very well. We didn’t find the open guy very well down the stretch. And when we had open looks, they were nowhere near going in. It’s been the story of the series.”

If Minnesota goes on to lose—no team down 3-0 in the NBA playoffs has ever come back to win—then Karl-Anthony Towns will sit with the painful memory of his most desperate attempts. Edwards will wrestle with what could have been, if only he had been able to see through the fast-moving mechanics of the Dallas defense. “The ball got stuck a couple times in my hands,” he admitted after the game. These are the mistakes that stay with you. And in the aggregate, they’re the mistakes that shape a team’s psyche, amplifying every momentary doubt as the Wolves attempt to match wits with the league’s most impeccable closers.

“I can’t speak for every person, but I’m sure we’re looking up and saying: How are we gonna win this one?” Mike Conley said after Game 3. “We’ve gotta figure it out. This is the moment of the game when we have to be tight and together and figure it out. Obviously, it’s on our minds.” How could it not be? In this series, the Wolves have scored 64 total fourth-quarter points across the three games. Luka and Kyrie, as a pair, have scored 58. Their takeover has been absolute—a display of mastery and will that has literally decided the series to this point. “Down the stretch, that’s where we make our money, man,” Irving said. “Since the All-Star break, we’ve been up there with some of the top teams in the league with finishing clutch games.”

Part of understanding this series is understanding the weight that kind of execution puts on an opponent. A tie game isn’t a tie game if Doncic is about to get the ball back. You’re already behind, caught up in the pressure to match what everyone knows is coming. It never stops. Doncic and Irving will rotely disassemble whatever defense is put in front of them, almost as muscle memory, and then gradually work their way into the kinds of shots that only they can hit. They get to their spots relentlessly. You can fight through the screen to avoid gifting Luka a mismatch (as the Wolves did at the end of Game 2), layer in help to take away his driving lane, and stay well enough attached to make him shoot over the top. But you’ll still have to watch as his fadeaway finds the bottom of the net, starting the process all over again.

The fourth quarter is [when] you get a chance to see your competitor’s emotions,” Irving said. “You get to see what they’re made of.” The Wolves are a talented and impressive basketball team—formidable enough to take down the defending champions in a Game 7 on the Nuggets’ own home court. Yet this series has made one of the league’s biggest lineups feel smaller somehow, as Minnesota has strained to leverage its size in the ways it did against Denver. Towns looks utterly lost, neutralized by Dallas’s rim protection and abandoned by his shot after going 0-for-8 from deep. For all the heat Rudy Gobert took after Game 2, his greater failing in this series has come in the paint—where the reigning Defensive Player of the Year hasn’t been able to control the space between the drive and the lob, allowing both. When Luka fires off a bravura stepback 3 over Gobert to win a game, it’s less of a problem than when he seals a game with this lob over the top of him, right in what should be Gobert’s comfort zone:

In fairness: This is an impossible play to fully contain. Even the best defender in the world can’t take all the options away from a playmaker like Doncic, just as the best defensive team in the league is finding that it has to pick its poison with the Mavs’ broader offense. You can put other defenders in rotation to discourage Daniel Gafford and Dereck Lively II (who left Game 3 with a neck injury) from rolling to the rim, but not without giving up open looks from the corners. You can take away the outlet to the corner, but not while offering help against Doncic and Irving. Minnesota tried pretty much every style of coverage in Game 3, tying itself in knots to counter the simplicity of the Dallas offense. This is a team that knows its spacing and knows its flow—a clarity that eludes the Wolves, particularly late in games.

“Basketball is not a perfect science, but we’ve gotta find ways to raise our level when it matters,” Gobert said. “In the last six minutes, everything’s gotta be on a higher level: our focus, our execution offensively. Everything should go up instead of going down.”

The Wolves are operating at a precision deficit. Everything the Mavericks do feels cleaner, clearer, more purposeful. It’s the difference between knowing how to solve a puzzle and dumping out the box to fumble around for the right pieces. So much of this is new for Minnesota, and for Edwards especially. Luka and Kyrie have been here before, and it shows—as it always does in the postseason. The high drama of the playoffs comes from the intense focus on the basketball itself, elevating every moment to the point that a second-round win over the defending champs can feel like a coronation. Things are warmer in the spotlight. It just doesn’t leave anywhere to hide.

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