Timberwolves

The Wolves Learned A Unique Lesson On Their Run To the Western Conference Finals

Photo Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Edwards offered an honest assessment of the Minnesota Timberwolves after they fell to the Dallas Mavericks, 108-105, in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

“Y’all could see it; we were a step behind everybody, especially myself,” Edwards explained. “Kyrie got a transition layup after I think we scored, and he just outran me. I was just exhausted, man. But we will be alright.”

True to form, Edwards was confident in how he ended his response. The Timberwolves had only two days off after their 20-point comeback win against the Denver Nuggets in Game 7 of the second round. Since 2011, teams in the conference finals coming off a Game 7 win against a team that didn’t play a Game 7 are 0-14 in Game 1. Therefore, Minnesota playing sluggishly in Game 1 wasn’t surprising.

Still, some pundits were upset with Edwards’ remarks after Game 1 against Dallas. He defended Kyrie Irving for 33.9 partial possessions and allowed him to shoot 4 of 7 from the floor and register eight game-high points as the primary defender. Even though Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker successfully took turns guarding Jamal Murray in the second round, the frontcourt tandem of Irving and Luka Dončić is a different animal.

Entering the series, Las Vegas favored the Wolves (-170) to beat Dallas and gave them the second-best odds to hoist the 2024 Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. After Minnesota’s defensive onslaught against the defending champions, many expected the Wolves to beat the Mavs. However, Dallas completely flipped the script on offense and defense, ending Minnesota’s season in five games.

Teams always learn lessons in the postseason. Playoff failure and heartbreak breed championship-caliber teams. While the Wolves might not have been heartbroken after their season ended last week, all the players were disappointed in their exit interviews. They were only seven games away from their first championship in franchise history.

However, the Wolves learned a critical but often overlooked lesson in their defeat.

After a four-year playoff drought, the Timberwolves got over the hump in 2022. They made the first round, eventually losing in six games against the Memphis Grizzlies after a Play-In Tournament win over the Los Angeles Clippers. Chris Finch and his staff clinched a playoff berth while coaching the fifth-youngest team in the NBA.

It was a stepping-stone season. Once the Wolves hired Tim Connelly as President of Basketball Operations, he made moves to bring in battle-tested veterans Rudy Gobert and Kyle Anderson the following summer. A few months later, Connelly and his staff traded for Mike Conley at the trade deadline.

Suddenly, the Wolves became the 12th-youngest team ahead of the 2023-24 season. Minnesota’s core was still relatively young, and the veterans they brought in had limited deep postseason success. Conley and Anderson went to the Western Conference Finals once before this season. But Gobert had never got past the second round, and the rest of the players in Finch’s playoff rotation never got out of the first round.

Minnesota’s lack of players with experience playing more than 90 games in one season showed against Dallas.

“Maybe we kinda hit a wall,” Anderson told reporters in his exit interview. “It just felt like we didn’t have the same juice that we had in the Denver and Phoenix series. Sometimes, you don’t even realize. But my Dad brought it up to me this morning, saying, ‘It looks like you guys just hit a wall.’

“You try to stay away from that. You try to think that you have energy and you are ready to go, but we didn’t have that same pop on both sides of the ball as a unit in the Dallas series as we did in Denver, Phoenix, and all season.”

Minnesota’s defense was its strength in the regular season, posting an NBA-low 108.4 defensive rating and holding its opponents to under 100 points 23 times. Wolves Defensive Coordinator Elston Turner had physically imposing defenders like Gobert, McDaniels, Alexander-Walker, Edwards, and Anderson at his disposal. However, Minnesota’s aggressiveness, physicality, and want-to made defense for the team fun again.

In the first and second rounds of the playoffs, there were numerous times when you could see the Nuggets or Phoenix Suns start to wear down because of Minnesota’s defense. Whether that came in the form of Devin Booker having outbursts of emotions or Murray turtling the ball at the halfcourt line because the Wolves were doubling him, they consistently looked like the team that wanted to win the series more.

But Dallas drastically turned the tables on the Wolves.

“I know a lot of guys were tired today. It’s a long season,” Reid told reporters during his exit interview. “Once you get to this point, you’ve played over 100 games. Being in shape. Having that mental to where you can get through anything. I think everybody pretty much had that mindset, we just didn’t really break through that barrier where we are all active and ready to go as far as shape. Like I said, everyone was pretty tired. You could see it, and it showed.”

Minnesota’s offense feeds off its defense. When the Wolves aren’t getting stops, they aren’t likely to put together meaningful offensive possessions. Dončić and Irving dissected the Wolves with their isolation scoring and ability to read the floor. Minnesota could not contain them for large stretches of the series, proving defense alone can’t win championships.

With the amount of energy the Wolves had to exude on defense, their offense faltered.

“Their physicality really bothered us,” Finch said after Game 6 when a reporter asked about Minnesota’s offense struggles. “Their physicality busted us out of everything we tried to do.”

The Mavericks were the more aggressive team on defense. They fought hard over screens, were physical with Edwards when he attacked downhill, and stymied the Wolves with elite shot-blocking around the rim. However, Minnesota’s ball movement was slow, and it rarely punished Dallas when it was slow to rotate. Far too often, the Wolves settled for pull-up threes and contested mid-range attempts instead of penetrating inside with force.

Minnesota was in close contention to win the first three games against Dallas. But with their season on the line in Game 5, the Wolves drastically failed on both ends of the floor – ending the most successful season in 20 years on a disappointing note.

Ant is aware of what needs to change. The team already has its sights set on returning to the Western Conference Finals next year and breaking through to the Finals. The 2024 campaign was another building block year. Now, the Wolves must start preparing for an even longer season, which will begin in four short months.

“We trained this year as if we were going to play 82 games and maybe one round of the playoffs, but we didn’t know we were going to go this far,” Edwards said. “We didn’t train like it this summer; I know nobody did, especially myself. This summer is going to be huge for all of us because we know what type of team we got and we know what we are capable of, so we need to train like we know what we are going to do.”

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