The Wolves Proved Defense Alone Can’t Win Championships

Photo Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Luka Dončić already had his fourth three-pointer of the evening 9:37 into Game 5 between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Dallas Mavericks. He rolled off a screen at the halfcourt line from Daniel Gafford and casually walked into a triple with Kyle Anderson a few feet behind him.

Dončić had a straight face after the make until Minnesota’s coaching staff called timeout with the Wolves suddenly trailing by 12 points. Flexing and screaming at the crowd, Luka looked like a player ready to send his opponent home and advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in his career.

“I knew it was going to be a long night for whoever was in front of him,” Gafford said when a reporter asked about Dončić’s hot start. “I just set a screen and got him downhill. I thought I set a good enough screen, and then I turned around, and he was shooting from halfcourt and making it.… He had it going early, and we had to just piggyback off the energy he started with. He set the tone, and we just had to follow suit.”

It didn’t matter how physical they were or what defensive looks the Wolves sent Luka’s way; he was feasting from any spot on the court. Dončić ended the night with 36 points, 20 of which he scored in the first quarter alone. He set the tone with unstoppable offense against a team with the best defensive rating (108.4) in the regular season.

Minnesota’s defense got them to a place it had not been in 20 years, breaking through and advancing to the Western Conference Finals. However, the cliché that defense wins championships was proven false in the Wolves’ 124-105 season-ending loss on Thursday night.

“We were never really settled in. Their physicality bothered us,” Chris Finch explained postgame. “The game slipped away from us in the first quarter when we missed a lot of the easy shots and went one-on-one too early. Just got busted out of any kind of offensive structure.”

Dončić shot 8 of 10 from the floor and 4 of 5 from deep through the first 12 minutes, and the Wolves did not offer a counterpunch. As a team, Dallas went 14 of 23 from the floor and 4 of 7 from deep, while Minnesota went 8 of 26 from the floor and 1 of 5 from three.

Even though Dončić stole the show in the first quarter, the Mavericks looked like they wanted to win more, particularly on defense. Most of Minnesota’s offensive sets came in the halfcourt because Dallas shot an unconscious 60.8% from the floor. Given how stifling the Mavericks’ defense was, the Wolves would have done well if they had gotten some consistent opportunities in transition.

The Wolves opened the first 1:39 minutes of the game by shooting 3 of 6 from the floor and were only behind by a point. They did an excellent job asserting their overwhelming size on the glass and pounded the ball into the paint. However, Minnesota closed the final 9:38 minutes of the period, shooting 5 of 20 from the floor, including nine straight misses through the final 4:59 minutes. Dallas was aggressive at the point of attack, forced the ball out of Anthony Edwards’ hands, and rotated incredibly well. Jason Kidd’s squad looked like the Wolves in Game 2 against the Denver Nuggets in the second round.

The Mavericks improved their 18th-ranked defensive rating (114.9) in the regular season to seventh-best (111.1) in the postseason. They completely flipped the script on the best defensive team all series long – particularly early in Game 5. Minnesota sucked the life out of Denver with its defense, and many thought the same would happen against Dallas, but that wasn’t the case.

“Their defense has been the top defense since the trade deadline,” Finch told the media regarding Dallas’ physicality and defense. “We weren’t able to apply the pressure at the point of attack with [Kyrie and Luka] as we have been. It feels like we spent the whole series on their hip or them getting by us a little too easily.”

Dončić isn’t particularly quick, but he attacked downhill and got to his spots uniquely by crab-dribbling into the paint and slowing everything down. For the most part, he played his brand of basketball, and Minnesota’s defense didn’t bother him.

In the second quarter of Game 5, though, Luka recorded only five points on 2 of 5 from the floor. After his unreal start, Dončić’s lack of production should have allowed it to quickly scrap back into the game. However, the Wolves were looking up at a 29-point deficit at halftime. Kyrie Irving was navigating through lackluster point-of-attack defense, which was why the Timberwolves couldn’t build any momentum.

Typically, Dallas uses Dončić as its starter on offense. After he sets the tone, Kidd calls Irving out of the bullpen to provide an offensive spark. In the second quarter alone, Kyrie registered 15 points on an immaculate 5 of 5 from the floor and 4 of 4 from the charity stripe. Like he’s done all series, Irving blew past his defender quickly and generated quality – although contested – looks from around the basket and inside the free-throw line.

There was nothing the best defensive team in the NBA could do. They were helpless. It was the perfect storm for the Mavericks on offense, and on the other side of the timeline, the Wolves continued to falter. Dallas outscored Minnesota 34-21 in the second quarter, ultimately deciding the game’s outcome. While the Uncle Drew-led Mavs were going on their dominant offensive run, the Wolves continued to feed right into the hands of Dallas’ defense with poor ball movement and an inability to put the ball in the basket.

The Mavericks opened the second quarter on a 7-2 run. Minnesota needed to start the frame aggressively with Dončić on the bench. Instead, the Wolves continued to allow Dallas to get downhill with little resistance and played slow, tentative offense.

Once Edwards and Towns checked back in early in the frame, the Wolves responded on a quick 9-3 run, with all those points coming from their top-scoring dyad. Chris Finch’s squad showed a flicker of life until Dallas ended the final 4:30 minutes on an 18-4 run.

Like in the first quarter, Minnesota’s offense continued to lack aggression. The ball movement was slow. When the Wolves produced open looks, they didn’t knock them down, allowing Dallas to sit down defensively and easily collapse into the paint.

“It will start in training camp, the off-season, and watching film,” Mike Conley responded when asked about Minnesota’s poor offense against the Mavericks. “The energy we put in defensively, we have to put in the same energy offensively.… The small things have to become habits for us, and the offense can be a big thing when it comes down to execution in big moments.”

The Wolves showed better offensive life in the third quarter of Game 5, recording 33 points on 11 of 23 from the floor and 5 of 11 from deep. However, the comeback effort was far too little, too late. Minnesota’s historic season was over at halftime.

Defense led the team to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 20 years. Still, the Wolves proved that being a great defensive team can only get you so far. Playing a team with two future Hall of Fame scorers salivating at the opportunity of a Finals berth, the defense tasked with containing them can only do so much.

The Wolves collectively shot 45.7% from the floor in the Western Conference Finals and needed more offense from their stars and bench. However, the team set up the framework for many years to come. Unlike most teams, Minnesota has the defensive chops. Now, it needs to carry that success over on offense.

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