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Basketball

What We Saw, What It Felt Like: Mavs-Wolves, Game 4

The bad guys won 105-100. Gentleman's sweep, anyone?
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Karl-Anthony Towns takes it to the rim. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The playoffs are complicated. Each series is its own story, and each game is its own chapter encompassing a dozen moments and plot points. But the playoffs can also be simple. Each of those moments, those plot points, falls into one of two buckets: the things we observe and the emotions they inspire within us. That’s what we’re here to talk about.

What We Saw

Maybe we got overconfident. Expecting the Mavericks to sweep a proud and young team that won 56 games in the regular season and had their backs against the wall was probably too much. As was thinking the Mavs’ superstars, Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving, wouldn’t have a night where they’d struggle against the NBA’s best defense, after averaging 33 and 28 points on more than 40 percent three-point shooting in the first three games.

The Mavericks came out looking tired—both Dončić and Daniel Gafford mentioned their low energy post-game—and the Timberwolves jumped on them early. Minnesota played like a desperate team, disrupting plays, denying early actions and playing physical in-your-face defense, even if it meant getting foul trouble. (And it did; Karl-Anthony Towns fouled out, and both Anthony Edwards and Rudy Gobert finished with five fouls.) Chris Finch made every possible adjustment to prevent Dončić and Irving from beating his team again. He switched defensive assignments, having 6-foot-9 Jaden McDaniels shadow the much smaller Irving, while Edwards chased Dončić around screens. Minnesota also ensured that Towns and Mike Conley did not get switched onto either of the Dallas stars, even at the expense of allowing wide open looks for others.

The Mavericks’ dynamic duo struggled with shooting. Dončić finished with 28 points, making 7 of 21 attempts, while Irving had only 16 points on 6 of 18 shooting. The Mavericks also had two costly defensive breakdowns when the game was on the line, allowing Towns to break out of his shooting slump with two open three-point looks. This gave KAT the confidence to make a third contested one; he scored nine points in one critical three-minute stretch.

Despite all that, this game, like the previous three, came down to the wire, with the Mavericks having a chance to win. But in the end, the heroics of Luka and Kyrie were too little, too late to steal the game. Still, the Mavericks’ confidence shouldn’t waver after this loss. In a way, it was reminiscent of the playoff setbacks against the Thunder, when the Mavericks lost because Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made more tough mid-range shots (Dallas’ defense continues to refuse to give up easy ones) than their stars. Edwards, who shot 6 of 16 on non-rim two-point shots in the first three games, made 7 of 14 Tuesday night, including a dagger with 38 seconds left.

The Timberwolves’ stars outshined the Mavericks’ stars when it mattered for the first time in the series. But I’m still taking Dončić and Irving over any star duo, and I expect them to rebound and close out the series soon. These Mavericks have shown resilience and have always responded when needed. They haven’t lost two games in a row in the playoffs, so it’s hard to believe they will lose four straight and spoil their chance for an NBA Finals appearance. —Iztok Franko

What It Felt Like

Kyrie Irving was both right and wrong. Before Game 4, he remarked that for the Timberwolves, “this was their Super Bowl,” while it was “just a normal game” for the Mavericks. Minnesota and its stars did in fact play a desperate, ferocious brand of basketball that it exhibited during the regular season and in series wins over the Suns and Nuggets. But it was hardly a regular game for the Mavericks. They looked worn out, wearing the battle scars of having had to erase deficit after deficit late in games throughout this postseason.

To be clear, I have no issue with Irving making that statement. If anyone can make it, it’s him. He was 14-0 in closeout games heading into the evening, he has been there, and he has been a stone-cold clutch killer in these playoffs. While the fans might have been overconfident, I don’t sense that the team was. The Mavs simply had a low-energy off night and ran into a team that finally played to its paper.

Irving turned the ball over four times, the worst of which came with just over 30 seconds left and down five. Irving got blitzed in the pick-and-roll and threw about the laziest pass you will ever see him make, effectively sealing the loss. It was a welcome sight to see Maxi Kleber return to the lineup, albeit on a pitch count, and contribute solid minutes. However, it was painfully obvious how much the Mavericks missed rookie center Dereck Lively II. In the first two games of this series, the Timberwolves shot a putrid 56 and 52 percent at the rim, respectively. In the last two games, they have shot 77 percent (Game 3) and 69 percent (Game 4). It cannot be overstated how much Lively means to this team, especially against a team that plays the way the Timberwolves do.

I have noticed when watching the TNT studio show how every analyst shoveled dirt on Minnesota’s grave after each of the first three games, while host Ernie Johnson would always push back. His point has been that every one of these games has been close; each game has required an elite clutch performance from Dallas. And he’s right. These teams are evenly matched; Dallas just has the far superior star duo, which carries more weight in weightier moments. On Tuesday, Anthony Edwards continued the uber-aggressive play he exhibited in the previous two games (23 drives, compared to just 11 in Game 1), and Karl-Anthony Towns finally played with the confidence you’d expect from a player making $50 million per season. Dončić was fine; Irving was not.

On a night like that, you’re going to need someone else to pop , as P.J. Washington did in the Oklahoma City series, but no one did. Washington and Derrick Jones Jr. shot a combined 3 of 12 from deep, including 1 of 5 in the fourth quarter. That’s simply not enough if Dončić or Irving has an off night.

This is a fragile fan base, with good reason. We remember 2006, 2007, and even in this era the blown 2-0 lead in the 2021 series against the Clippers. Historically, teams with a 3-0 series lead are 154-0 in a best-of-seven series. At some point, it’s going to happen. Admit it: if you’re a die-hard Mavericks fan, somewhere in the recesses of your basketball brain you’re worried it will be you.

But Dallas didn’t build a 3-0 lead on fluky luck. The Mavericks took command of the series because their stars are better, and that’s what matters this time of year. Yes, eventually a team will squander a 3-0 lead. That will not be one led by Irving and Dončić. —Jake Kemp

Authors

Iztok Franko

Iztok Franko

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Iztok Franko covers the Mavericks for StrongSide. He is an analyst that uncovers stories hidden in NBA data and basketball…
Jake Kemp

Jake Kemp

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Jake Kemp covers the Cowboys and Mavericks for StrongSide. He is a lifelong Dallas sports fan who previously worked for…
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