Can the Timberwolves keep pace with Kyrie Irving and the Mavs? Here are 5 keys to Game 2

After a Game 1 of the 2024 NBA Western Conference finals that saw the superstar tandem of Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving draw first blood, here are a few things to keep an eye on as the Minnesota Timberwolves and Dallas Mavericks get set to tip off Game 2 at Target Center on Friday:

After years as a comparatively plodding offensive team — though, with Dončić at the controls, often a wildly effective one — Dallas boasted an improved transition outfit during the regular season. The Mavs finished eighth in fast-break points per game and just outside the top 10 in both how often they got out in transition and how many points they scored per trip, according to Cleaning the Glass. Irving was the key driver of that uptick in fast-break frequency, and you saw why in Game 1.

Irving spoke multiple times — during his in-game interview between the first and second quarters, and on the “Inside the NBA” set after Dallas’ 108-105 win — about how the Wolves were just coming off a grueling Game 7 against the Nuggets in the second round. Minnesota’s comeback victory capped a physical series, one that saw ascendant superstar Anthony Edwards average more than 40 minutes per game and star big men Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert spend two weeks wrestling with Nikola Jokić.

The 32-year-old Irving bet that Minnesota might be a half-step slow in reacting to a new opponent so soon after such an exhausting effort, and he made a point of trying to get into their legs early and often:

Time and again in the first half, when Irving saw a crease, he exploded through it. Any time Gobert was out of the lane, Towns or Naz Reid were lifted up toward the perimeter, or his man — chiefly Edwards, who famously asked for the defensive assignment on Irving and might’ve gotten more than he bargained for — was just a smidge out of position, Irving put his head down and sprinted, trusting that he could win the footrace to the rim against any rotating defender.

He attacked in the half-court. He attacked from half-court, hunting opportunities to push the pace off misses and even some Minnesota makes. Even when he couldn’t get all the way to the rim himself, the pressure he put on the Wolves’ backtracking defense paid dividends, like on the second-quarter possession where he was able to pitch the ball back to a trailing Dončić to isolate against Edwards — a physical matchup in which Luka seemed very comfortable in Game 1, and that resulted in a bully-ball drive to the rim for a layup.

All told, Dallas didn’t get a ton in transition in Game 1. The Mavericks totaled just nine fast-break points, with an attentive Wolves defense limiting them to transition chances on just 8.5% of their offensive possessions — Dallas’ third-lowest rate of the playoffs and ninth lowest in 95 total games this season, according to Cleaning the Glass. But that early-offense aggression helped set the tone for their offensive performance, and with Minnesota bombing away from 3-point range in the early going, the persistent paint pressure from Irving — who scored 24 of his 30 points in the first half on pristine 11-for-14 shooting — played a huge role in helping the Mavericks stay connected and able to keep the fight in a phone booth heading into the second half.

“We would’ve been down 20 if he didn’t score so many points,” Dončić said after the game. “Big time.”

The challenge for Minnesota heading into Game 2: How do you shut off the water once a scorer as versatile, prolific and gifted as Irving — who’d adopted more of a secondary facilitating role against Oklahoma City, averaging 15.7 points on 14 field-goal attempts per game — has the faucet open full blast? Especially when doing so requires so much from your own No. 1 option.

Hey, speaking of …

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - MAY 22: Anthony Edwards #5 of the Minnesota Timberwolves looks at Kyrie Irving #11 of the Dallas Mavericks during the first quarter in Game One of the Western Conference Finals at Target Center on May 22, 2024 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
Can Anthony Edwards slow down Kyrie Irving and still produce on offense? (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

The most important number on Edwards’ Game 1 stat sheet — 19 points on 6-for-16 shooting, with 11 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and three turnovers in 41 minutes — is the one that’s hidden inside the field-goal attempts.

Twelve of Edwards’ shots came from 3-point land, meaning that just four came inside the arc. Just three came in the paint; only two came in the restricted area. He missed both.

That, to put it mildly, is not what the Wolves have come to expect from their top scoring threat — and it’s a big reason why Minnesota, which came into the conference finals averaging nearly 47 points per game in the paint, mustered only 38 on 14-for-25 shooting in Game 1.

“We would like to get [Edwards] downhill a little bit more,” Minnesota head coach Chris Finch said after the game. “We’ll look at the tape and see ways to do that. But I thought there were opportunities to go downhill, particularly in the first half.”

After averaging nearly 15 drives to the basket and 11 points per game off those drives during the regular season, and just under 14 drives and 10 points off them through the first two rounds, he managed only 10 drives leading to two points in Game 1 — a pair of free throws in the final minute of the first half.

Some of the blame for that falls on Edwards, who responded to the Mavericks’ drop pick-and-roll coverage early on by stepping into jumpers rather than looking to eat up the space and attack the basket. He went 3-for-4 on pull-ups in the first quarter and never really consistently got into rim-pressure mode after that.

“They’re down the floor,” Edwards said of Dallas’ bigs. “We didn’t really know what to expect. Came off and was open a bunch of times, and I took the shots. I’ll make 'em next time. I’ll live with it.”

Plenty of credit, though, belongs to the Mavericks’ defense — the NBA’s seventh-stingiest group after the trade deadline and a top-five unit in this postseason.

After the game, Edwards noted the difference between the at-the-level-of-the-screen defensive coverage favored by Jokić during the Denver series and how Mavericks centers Daniel Gafford and Dereck Lively II sink back to wall off the paint. Dallas’ two-headed rim-protecting monster also has plenty of help, with head coach Jason Kidd and defensive coordinator Sean Sweeney stationing their help defenders aggressively in the gaps flanking Edwards’ primary defender — a loaded-up coverage that longtime NBA guard-turned-commentator Jamal Crawford called “man and a half defense,” and that kind of resembles the way opponents try to build a wall against Giannis Antetokounmpo in transition:

Even when he wasn’t necessarily staring down that kind of wall, though — when he had an empty corner (albeit with Lively lurking) or a chance to make a hard right-hand drive (albeit with Irving peeled in) — Edwards didn’t crank it up the way we’ve become accustomed to seeing from him:

And when he did hit the turbo, he often found himself met at the summit by several Mavericks — including at least a couple of very large ones — intent on making sure he didn’t come away from his trip with any souvenirs:

Finch, Micah Nori and the Wolves’ coaching staff need to find ways to clear the road for Edwards to more consistently get into the lane. (One idea: When he’s drawn Irving on a cross-match rather than the long-limbed Derrick Jones Jr., take him down to the block. Kyrie’s strong, smart, with great hands — no slouch. But stationing Ant closer to the paint might make it a bit easier for him to get in there.) When they can’t — even if there’s help on either side of him — Edwards might just have to lean on the God-given, near-unparalleled physical gifts he’s got, burst past the helpers and challenge those dropping bigs to knock him down more times than he can climb over them.

It won’t be easy; at this stage of the game, very little is. Sometimes, though, the only way out is through.

Pop quiz, hotshot: Who leads the Dallas Mavericks in overall plus-minus in the 2024 NBA playoffs? Dončić? Irving? Mid-second-round shot-making hero PJ Washington?

Nope! It’s Lively. In 287 postseason minutes with the rookie center on the floor, Dallas has crushed its opposition by 106 points — the fifth-highest mark of any player in these playoffs, behind only three Celtics (Jayson Tatum, Jrue Holiday, Al Horford) and opposite number Gobert. The Duke product continued making a massive impact on the proceedings in Game 1, finishing with nine points on 4-for-4 shooting, 11 rebounds (four on the offensive glass), three assists and a pair of blocks in just under 27 minutes off Dallas' bench; the Mavs outscored the Wolves by 19 points in his shifts.

What makes Lively such a compelling and rare figure for a 20-year-old big is how significant a role he can play on both ends of the court. His agility and touch make him a dangerous counterpart for Luka and Kyrie, not only as a lob finisher, but also as someone who can make a play with the ball in his hands:

Those four offensive rebounds? They created nine second-chance points, including five in the fourth quarter — a tip dunk to put Dallas up by six early in the frame, and a stepback 3 by Dončić that cut a four-point Minnesota lead down to just one with 3:14 remaining.

Job No. 1 for Lively, though, comes on the defensive end. The 7-foot-1 rookie has to battle the likes of Gobert, Towns and Reid on the boards; occasionally step out to corral ball-handlers in space; essentially play a one-man zone near the basket to deter dribble penetration from Edwards and Co.; and, if an opponent does venture inside, contest the shot and force a miss. He does all of that with aplomb:

The Wolves shot 7-for-18 (38.9%) when Lively was defending in Game 1, according to’s tracking. Over the full postseason, opponents have shot 68-for-162 (42%) with him defending. That’s 9.5% below their average field-goal percentage — the largest differential of any player to guard at least 100 attempts.

Oklahoma City never really figured out a way to get Lively (and, to a lesser extent, Gafford) to decamp from the paint and declutter their driving lanes; this played a significant role in all manner of Thunder role players suddenly taking way more 3s than is part of Sam Presti’s balanced breakfast, and in the West’s top seed going home in six. If the Wolves can’t find better solutions, and soon, they might find themselves following suit. Because at this point, it doesn’t seem like the kid’s going to beat himself. Not when he’s having so much fun showing all the different ways he can beat you.

Scratching post

Minnesota opened the game calling for a Towns post-up on Washington. Dallas immediately sent help, with Gafford sliding over to double-team KAT on the catch and Irving rotating over to tag Gobert under the rim, leaving his man, Mike Conley, open in the weak-side corner.

The play itself wasn’t super notable: KAT dropped it down to Gobert with the height advantage, Kyrie fouled to prevent a layup, Minnesota ball. It did feel notable, though, that the Wolves kept pawing at that matchup in the first half — trying to establish Towns on the block against Washington, either trying to get their All-Star big man going with some touches on the interior or trying to get Dallas to compromise its coverage by looking to bail Washington out of an unfavorable situation.

With the exception of a third-quarter possession that ended with Towns kicking out to McDaniels, who drove a closeout and dropped a pass off to Gobert for a dunk, it didn’t amount to too much …

… but considering that it did produce a few instances of Dallas putting two defenders on the ball, opening up passes elsewhere, and that it did give Towns a couple of avenues to attack the rim, I wonder if Minnesota will go back to that well again in Game 2.

KAT’s done a wonderful job of accepting a more circumscribed offensive role to make space for Edwards’ ascent and the primacy of Gobert in the pick-and-roll. To beat a defense this good with two offensive forces as strong as Luka and Kyrie, though, he’s going to have to offer a reminder that he, too, is an all-league-caliber point producer. A 6-for-20 mark from the field, with only a pair of free throws, just isn’t going to cut it. The Wolves have to find more ways of generating paint touches and high-percentage looks, and of manufacturing some kind of rhythm, for Towns; it’ll be interesting to see if another steady diet of post-ups, at least in the early going, will be it.

Longtime NBA head coach/TNT commentator/iconic bike rider Stan Van Gundy repeatedly mentioned that he wasn’t a huge fan of the Timberwolves playing drop coverage against Dončić and Irving in the pick-and-roll in Game 1.

It’s easy to understand why. Gobert sagging back to protect the rim, with the ball-handler’s defender chasing his man over the top of the screen, is a coverage that’s willing to concede pull-up jumpers, often from the midrange. Against opponents like Luka (who made more pull-up Js than any other player in the NBA during the regular season) and Kyrie (who finished 15th in field-goal percentage among 113 players to take at least 150 pull-ups this season), both of whom are also adept at splashing floaters and lofting lobs, that can be a recipe for some loud makes:

The reason so many teams play drop, though — and why Minnesota featured it so heavily with Gobert in the middle, to the tune of one of the most fearsome defenses the NBA’s seen in the last 25 years — is because it also tends to produce an awful lot of misses. We just don’t remember them because, well, they’re quiet and unmemorable:

For what it’s worth:

• Dončić and Irving combined to shoot 18-for-42 (42.9%) outside the restricted area;

• The Mavericks as a team took nearly 43% of their shots from midrange — their highest share of the playoffs and their fifth-highest share of the season;

• After leading the playoffs with 12.8 corner 3-point attempts per game through the first two rounds, the Mavs attempted just four corner 3s in Game 1;

• Dallas scored 113.7 points-per-100 in Game 1, according to NBA Advanced Stats — a tick below their average through the first two rounds, and 3.3 points-per-100 below their regular-season mark;

• The Wolves outscored the Mavs by 10 points in 37.5 minutes with Gobert on the court, and gave up a measly one point per possession in those minutes — most (though not all) of which featured him playing in the drop. In the 10.5 minutes he was off it, and Towns and Reid were manning the middle in more aggressive coverages? Minnesota got outscored by 13 points, with the Mavs scoring a blistering 1.65 points per trip.

All of which is to say: As awesome as Luka and Kyrie were, and as cool as some of those shots and lobs they made were, the Wolves didn’t lose this game because they gave up too many midrange stepbacks in drop coverage. They might consider tightening up their gap help in the drop — Gibson Pyper notes that Milwaukee made a similar tweak three years back after Trae Young torched them in the Eastern finals — on the whole, they defended well enough to win. Minnesota’s best path to getting on the board in this series lies with finding ways to consistently generate rim pressure and taking better care of the ball. When it comes to the other end of the court? Dance with the one that brung ya (ass).