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Western Conference Finals Preview: Will The Mavs Or Wolves Solve The Other’s Defense First?

Getty Image/Merle Cooper

The Western Conference Finals is a fascinating matchup of young teams looking to reach their first NBA Finals. The Dallas Mavericks have beaten the Clippers and top-seeded Thunder to reach this point, while the Timberwolves bounced the Suns and defending champion Nuggets to get to the conference finals for the first time in 20 years.

Despite having very different constructions, the two teams have leaned on the same things to get here. The teams follow the lead of young stars, as Anthony Edwards and Luka Doncic have more than lived up to the billing as young faces of the league thus far this postseason. The two both seem totally at ease as the centerpieces of a contender, producing at an incredibly high level this postseason. and have a showmanship to their game that makes everything a bit more fun when they’re going off. They play to the crowd both at home, basking in the adoration of their fans, and on the road, reveling in the chance to hush an opposing arena.

However, the full potential of both teams is unlocked by their secondary stars in Karl-Anthony Towns and Kyrie Irving, who are both capable of lifting the team’s ceiling and making each offense nearly unstoppable when they are rolling — in two very different ways. Irving’s dynamic on-ball creativity and shot-making creates immense pressure on defenses opposite Doncic, particularly late in games when teams start to send extra attention at the Slovenian star. Towns, meanwhile, does the same as the best three-point shooting big in the league, but the Wolves are at their most dangerous when he is more than just a shooter and is aggressive getting downhill when teams start to close out hard on him. Both Irving and Towns are prone to the occasional disappearing act for a half. Irving seemingly does so by deferential choice, while Towns has a habit of picking up foul trouble with some head-scratching decisions.

While getting consistent excellence from Doncic and Edwards is a must for either team, you feel fairly confident they’ll both be up for the challenge most nights and may ultimately wash each other out. As such, which of Irving and Towns can more consistently provide high-level support could be one separator in this series.

Beyond the stars, these teams have gotten tremendous performances from the “others.” PJ Washington has been a revelation for the Mavs, winning them a few games this postseason already by punishing teams for leaving him open from three. Jaden McDaniels has been that guy for the Wolves, showing he’s more than just a defensive terror by having multiple 20-plus point outings so far in the first two rounds. Those two figure to be X-factors, as guys that won’t be at the top of the opposing scouting report but can force the other team to change their gameplan if they get rolling.

The real question in this series, for me, is whether Dallas has enough guys they can trust night in and night out to counter the Wolves rotation. Beyond those top three, the Mavs seem to have to be a bit more flexible in adjusting their rotation on any given night to roll with hot hands. The Wolves can be pretty confident in what they’ll get from Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley, and Naz Reid on both ends of the floor, with Nickeil Alexander-Walker at least bringing high-level defense, even if the offensive output can swing wildly. That gives them a pretty high floor and allows for a consistent nightly rotation of seven, with Kyle Anderson and Monte Morris getting the call in spot duty behind that group.

The Mavs, meanwhile, split their big man minutes between Daniel Gafford and Dereck Lively II (the latter of whom was a revelation late in the series against the Thunder). Against a big Minnesota frontcourt, they’ll need Gafford to be better than he was against OKC and need a young Lively to reach the highs he showed in that second round series more consistently. From there, they lean on Josh Green off the bench on the wing and roll the dice on whether any given night will be a good or bad Tim Hardaway Jr. shooting night — with occasional cameos from Dante Exum and Jaden Hardy when in search of something.

This series figures to go deep, with both teams needing to making adjustments and counters as it wears on. To be able to do that, Dallas is going to need six or seven guys in the rotation they can trust in nightly. That’s especially true in the frontcourt, as they’ll have their hands full with Towns, Gobert, and Reid. The Thunder and Clippers were very different challenges than this Wolves team, and they will need Gafford and Lively to not only be active defensively, but to provide an offensive threat as finishers to keep Minnesota from loading up help on Doncic and Irving.

On the other side, this Dallas defense has been sensational this postseason, and Minnesota will need to be ready to handle the physicality of the Mavs. They have walled off the rim in the first two series, and no one has quite figured out how to get them out of shape consistently. The Mavs figure to test it Minnesota has enough creators outside of Edwards, asking questions of Towns, McDaniels, and Conley to pick up the slack. Conley’s Achilles soreness will be something to monitor all series, as his ability to get the Wolves into good offense will be vital against this Mavs team. Towns, meanwhile, will have to avoid trying to meet Dallas’ physicality by getting too amped to match that by ducking his shoulder in and picking up offensive fouls.

This should be a spectacular series, with defense at the forefront and both teams stars having to adapt to the challenges presented to them. The team that can dictate which offense has to make changes first figures to grab the upper hand, but there should be multiple twists and turns this series takes in terms of adjustments and counters before it’s all said and done.