The Wolves' Defense Showed Up, But Their Offense Is Still Missing

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Following Wednesday’s 108-105 Game 1 loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Chris Finch assessed the state of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“The Western Conference Finals started. I’m not sure if they got the memo,” he said. “But they got it this afternoon.”

It’s unclear that they got the message. Mike Conley had to call a timeout 34 seconds into the game because the team forgot to have someone receive the inbound pass.

The start of the game may have been interesting, but the end was disappointing. Still, in a 109-108 loss, Finch showcased why he is a master at manipulating a game plan to effectively stunt Dallas’ offense — that is, until the Mavericks’ All-Star backcourt rose to another level. After a pair of Anthony Edwards free throws, the Wolves extended their lead to 108-103 with just 89 seconds left in the game.

During the ensuing Mavericks possession, Kyle Anderson switched onto Luka Doncic after a screen. Doncic danced with Anderson before firing a pass to Kyrie Irving on the wing. Irving would drive and kick, and Dallas swung the ball back to Doncic. Edwards and Anderson also doubled Doncic, and Irving drifted to the left corner, leaving Conley stuck guarding two Mavericks. Conley hesitated as Doncic pivoted and slung a pass to Irving, giving Irving just enough time to rise up and knock down a three, making the game 108-106 Wolves.

The Wolves had a chance to extend the lead again, but Jaden McDaniels‘ turnover after a review gave the Mavericks a chance to tie. However, Doncic missed a tough fadeaway two. Anderson pulled down the rebound, and the Wolves had a chance again to seal the game with just 30 seconds on the clock. But the Wolves stumbled again. Edwards threw a pass out of bounds, giving Dallas one more chance to steal a win.

Jason Kidd called time out and drew up the most important isolation play of the game. He had the inbounds pass go to Donic, and Dereck Lively II set the screen. During that screen, he started to roll to the basket and keep his hands on McDaniels to effectively carry him away to the paint. That left McDaniels unable to double or blitz off the screen and Rudy Gobert alone to guard Doncic. Doncic danced with the basketball, faking a drive left and crossing back.

Eventually, he took a step-back three-pointer over Gobert, sealing the game for the Mavericks.

The loss left the Target Center crowd silent. Minnesota called a timeout to advance the ball and had three seconds to score off an inbounds play. However, the horn sounded following Naz Reid‘s miss. Doncic’s three over Gobert spoiled an excellent game of adjustments the Wolves made, which gave them a chance to salvage Game 2 and head to Dallas tied. The loss also soured a game full of effective defensive adjustments to contain Doncic and Irving.

Ultimately, the players must make Finch’s ideas and gameplay effective. The stark change in philosophy was apparent on both ends from the first possessions. Defensively, the Wolves deployed a similar matchup on Doncic and Irving. Due to the personnel staying the same, the key change came in the pick-and-roll coverage.

The Wolves played a lot of drop coverage in Game 1, forcing the Mavericks to shoot significantly more mid-range shots. The Timberwolves mixed in some blitzes and zone looks, but the primary flaw with this strategy was that Doncic and Irving can thrive in the midrange. The secondary problem was allowing the Mavs to repeatedly run Minnesota’s defenders into screens, thus tiring them out. On multiple occasions, Dallas also pulled the ball back out after the screen to reset and screen again.

In Game 2, the Wolves played significantly more aggressive defense, blitzing on nearly every pick-and-roll. When the big set the screen, the defender would rush the ball handler and crowd his space, similar to how the Denver Nuggets handled Edwards in the later parts of their series. While effective, that defense requires a lot of effort from the other three defenders not in the play because it fell on them to protect the rim and cover the wing shooters.

The new defensive scheme worked in the first half. Irving struggled to shoot the ball, and Doncic found his passing lanes filled by scrambling Wolves defenders. Minnesota’s first-half defense mixed this aggressive style with the traditional drop and looks of zone, holding the Mavericks’ offense in check and preventing any real rhythm from developing.

The defensive adjustments resulted in the Wolves taking a 60-48 lead into halftime, with Irving shooting 2 of 8 for five points and two turnovers. Doncic also struggled despite scoring 16 first-half points. He shot 5 for 14 and had three turnovers. The only offense the Mavericks could consistently turn two was the alley-oop lob game, which provided them with some scoring, as seen below.

Entering the third quarter, Minnesota’s defense continued to play strong. However, the offense faltered, and the Mavericks slowly chipped away at the lead. Thanks to Doncic’s shot-making, Dallas cut the lead to four before Reid’s three extended the lead back to seven to end the third quarter.

The fourth quarter was a legacy moment for Reid. As Minnesota’s offense sputtered, Reid provided the only firepower to keep up with the Mavericks. Defensively, the adjustments continued to force Irving and Doncic into hard looks. However, Dallas’ stars rose to the occasion. Irving hit two highly-contested three-point shots in the first 100 seconds of the fourth quarter. The latter three gave the Mavericks their first lead since the game was 7-6.

Reid hit another three from the wing after a 90-second scoring drought, putting Minnesota ahead 89-87 with 9:00 to go. However, Irving and the Mavericks responded shortly after that when Irving hit another tough three-point shot. Reid scored five more points in the fourth quarter, leaving him with a Wolves-best 23 for the game. The Mavericks and Wolves battled back and forth until Edwards hit four consecutive free throws, ultimately extending the lead to 108-103.

The rest is history, and the Mavericks return home with a 2-0 lead in the series.

“Our offense is letting us down in key moments,” said Finch after the game, “with turnovers and some missed shots.”

The Wolves showed up to the Western Conference Finals in Game 2. Their adjustments gave them a chance and a lead late. Finch is ultimately right. Crucial offensive mistakes down the stretch led to their loss, but they have built on the foundation they laid in Game 1. As the series moves to Dallas, the Wolves must continue to adjust and adapt if they hope to regain control of the series. However, if the Wolves hope to return to Minnesota for a Game 5, they can’t lean on Naz Reid alone to generate offense.

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