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Game Preview #23: Wolves at Mavericks

Karl-Anthony Towns and Minnesota continue their road trip in Dallas, where they’ll face Luka Dončić and the Mavs, who have won four in a row.

Dallas Mavericks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves are yet to lose two consecutive games this season. Karl-Anthony Towns and Co. will look to continue that bounce-back success as they ride into the heart of Texas — hopefully with Anthony Edwards back — for a battle with Luka Dončić and the red hot Dallas Mavericks, who are playing for the third time in four nights and will be without star guard Kyrie Irving (right heel contusion).


Game Info

  • Who: Minnesota Timberwolves (17-5) at Dallas Mavericks (15-8)
  • When: Thursday, December 14 at 7:30 PM CT
  • Where: American Airlines Center
  • TV: Bally Sports North (Michael Grady, Jim Petersen and Lea B. Olsen)
  • Radio: KFAN 100.3 FM, Wolves Radio App
  • Line: Wolves +1.5 | Total: 230.5 (courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)

Fans can also stream the game live on the Bally Sports App.


Injury Report

Updated as of Thursday at 6:15 PM CT

Minnesota

AVAILABLE

  • Anthony Edwards (right hip pointer)
  • Jaden McDaniels (right ankle sprain)
  • Jordan McLaughlin (right MCL sprain)

OUT:

  • Jaylen Clark (right achilles tendon rupture rehab)
  • Luka Garza (two-way contract)
  • Leonard Miller (G League assignment)
  • Daishen Nix (two-way contract)

Dallas

AVAILABLE:

  • Tim Hardaway Jr. (back spasms)
  • Derrick Jones Jr. (right quad contusion)

OUT:

  • Seth Curry (non-COVID illness)
  • Josh Green (right elbow sprain)
  • Kyrie Irving (right heel contusion)
  • Maxi Kleber (right small toe dislocation)

What To Watch For

Dallas Mavericks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Can Wolves Replicate Previous Success on Luka?

Luka Dončić is a basketball superhero on the offensive end of the floor who is capable of destroying everything in his path, from big, strong wings to longer, quicker guards, and even centers who can move in space.

He is averaging 32.0 points (second in the NBA behind Joel Embiid) on 48.2/38.4/78.5 shooting splits — on 10.2 3-point attempts — and 8.9 assists to 3.9 turnovers per game this season, and already has four triple-doubles (five behind Nikola Jokić for the league lead). There is nothing he can’t do on the offensive end of the floor.

The four-time All-Star runs pick-and-roll better than just about anyone in the NBA, shoots 40.4% on catch-and-shoot 3s and 39.4% on pull-up 3s (his 65 makes are most in the NBA), is fourth in assists per game, and holds career-bests in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.31), 3-point percentage (38.4%), free throw percentage (78.5%), at-rim field goal percentage (86.3%), effective field goal percentage (56.8%), assists (8.9) and fouls per game (1.8). Dončić is a lock for All-NBA First Team for the fifth season in a row if he stays healthy and meets the 65-game requirement.

Despite all of that, when he plays the Timberwolves, Luka hasn’t maintained the same superstar level of play we’ve come to expect from him. While he has produced well (and efficiently) in the previous two outings against Minnesota, it has mostly been tough sledding, with the Wolves taking three of the last four matchups.

As you can see in the table below, Dončić’s averages drop considerably when matching up with Minnesota compared to the rest of the NBA over the past three seasons. Most notably, his points per game mark drops from 30.1 to 21.9, as do his field goal and 3-point percentages dip by 7.0% and 6.3%, respectively, while his assists fall by 1.5, his turnovers rise by 0.7 per contest, and his plus/minus mark drops more than eight points. Simply put, Luka just isn’t able to have the same impact.

A key reason for that is Minnesota’s wing defender depth. Jaden McDaniels is obviously special for so many reasons, but the way in which he has slowed down the Dončić production machine is elite. Luka in his last six matchups with Jaden has scored just 30 points on 10/29 shooting while McDaniels is his primary defender. Not counted in the following table is the ejection that Slim caused last year.

Beyond McDaniels, who is questionable after logging 27 minutes in his return from a right ankle sprain that caused him to miss almost a month, Edwards (36.0% shooting), Kyle Anderson (36.4%) and Troy Brown Jr. (36.4%) have all done good work defending Dončić in their matchups with the MVP candidate.

Expect McDaniels to take the matchup; and if Edwards is unable to go with his right hip pointer, the aforementioned Anderson and Brown Jr. will certainly get looks at him, along with Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who hasn’t spent much time matched up with Luka, but very well could in the event of foul trouble or lineups on the floor.

I also would be surprised to see the Timberwolves go zone for stretches as a way of trying to minimize rookie center Dereck Lively II as a lob threat, as well. Not to mention that Dallas is last in the NBA in points per possession (PPP) scored against zone this season at 0.167, per Synergy Sports. Now, they’ve only faced a zone on a whopping 12 possessions (the lowest in the NBA) this season because Luka is a world beater, so take that with a grain of salt. But especially in the minutes Dončić sits, I would be shocked if we didn’t see the Wolves go zone in some capacity.

Dallas will be down Irving, Josh Green, Maxi Kleber, and potentially Seth Curry (who is questionable), so their shooting outside of Luka will be limited. Grant Williams (42.5% on 5.7 3PA per game) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (39.0% on 9.1 3PA) are known marksmen, but Dante Exum’s 40.5% season clip seems more like a flash in the pan than a stable mark to expect, especially on the heels of a 7/9 effort against the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday.


San Antonio Spurs v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

A Good Spot for the {Insert Your Preferred Towns/Gobert Nickname Here}

As you might expect from a team starting a rookie center with no real center-sized players behind him on the depth chart, the Mavericks are struggling to contain opposing big men.

Most recently, Dallas has surrendered a 37-point, 11-rebound performance to Lakers All-NBA big Anthony Davis and a 41-point game to Memphis Grizzlies All-Star forward Jaren Jackson Jr. Go back another week and you can add a 32-piece from Sacramento Kings star Domantas Sabonis.

The Mavericks are allowing the sixth-most points to opposing centers and the third-highest shooting percentage at the rim to opponents in general, which should create a good opportunity for Rudy Gobert to bully another rookie center, like he has done to fellow Frenchman and San Antonio Spurs cornerstone Victor Wembanyama and Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Chet Holmgren.

Towns, meanwhile, is averaging 23.0 points on 53.9/52.0/83.3 shooting splits, 9.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists over his last five games. He is only attempting 15.2 shots per game over that span, a number that certainly should rise if Edwards isn’t available. Drawing Williams will be a good test of his ability to both work quickly in the post against a smaller-but-stocky defender and toy with a slower of foot wing when it comes to whether he shoots from 3 or drives.

Don’t forget about Naz Reid, either. The fan favorite pretty consistently finds success against teams whose backup 5s aren’t strong defenders, and Dwight Powell fits that description. Since the start of last season, Naz has averaged 14.3 points on 54.8/38.5/80.0 shooting splits against the Mavericks, eighth-most against NBA team over that span.

Not having to rely heavily upon perimeter players to make up for the scoring void Edwards leaves behind is important, especially when you consider that Dallas is better equipped to guard on the perimeter than they are in the paint. Gobert, Towns and Reid replicating a dominant performance similar to the 77-point outing they combined for a couple weeks ago in a 123-117 win over the Charlotte Hornets would go a long way in winning another game the Timberwolves should win.

Ideally, McDaniels — in Edwards’ absence — would be able to provide closer to 15-17 points per game than the 9.8 Slim is averaging outright this season, as Jaden is one of the only players on the roster capable of consistently creating his own shot and scoring in isolation. That isn’t to say that Mike Conley or Shake Milton can’t, just that those two generally do more of their scoring in the flow of the offense. While Conley and Milton being more aggressive in their efficient scoring spots on the floor would certainly be welcomed, with or without Edwards, McDaniels shooting more would also give the Wolves’ coaching staff a better look at if another offensive leap is possible for him and, if so, what it may look like in live game action. Thursday would be a good spot to see McDaniels get more aggressive, as he’ll likely draw Exum or Derrick Jones Jr., both of whom are 6-foot-5.