About halfway through the third quarter of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ game against the Dallas Mavericks Wednesday, Luka Doncic seemed to have that “Eureka!” moment that the great players get more often than everyone else.
After struggling with the Wolves’ defense for the first game-and-a-half of this mini-series, Doncic picked it apart in the second half at the Target Center. At one point, he assisted on three of the Mavericks’ five straight threes on a run that turned a three-point lead into an eight-point deficit for the Wolves with four minutes remaining in the 104-99 Dallas win.
The Wolves continued to fight until the last minute, but that stretch hurt their chances of leaving with a fourth-straight win.
“The breakdown was just [being] late on rotations,” Wolves head coach Chris Finch said of the Mavericks’ run of threes. “Stayed in a little too long, late on the rotation. Then we went to switch, we boned up a couple switches, and they got us on the drive-and-kick.”
The stat line — 25 points, nine rebounds, 10 assists, 8-of-16 shooting — was far from Doncic’s gaudiest, but it belies the total control he exhibited on the offensive end. He continuously found Dwight Powell with look-away dimes in the pick-and-roll in the third quarter and punished Minnesota when it switched by bullying his way to good looks and trips to the free throw line. That maestro-level orchestration continued straight through that fourth quarter run and won Dallas the game.
Minnesota’s early success against Doncic came with asking Rudy Gobert to do something he isn’t used to in his return to action: showing high on the pick-and-roll.
“I can do anything, it’s just about what’s best for the team,” Gobert said. “On a player like Luka, I think what’s good is to give him a different look. He’s very smart and can adapt really well... I thought it was really good when I was up early in the game, but then they adjusted. We adjusted too, just a tad too late.”
The Wolves’ inability to make shots themselves also helped do them in. For much of the game it was a battle of the bricks between the two sides from 3-point land, but then the Mavericks caught fire in the fourth. Minnesota, meanwhile, stayed as frigid as the weather outside Target Center, making just eight of their 30 3-point attempts and squandering a few good looks with the game in the balance.
The Wolves still had a chance when Austin Rivers made a corner three to cut the Mavericks’ lead to three with 3:14 left. From there, though, the Wolves missed five of their next six threes. Dallas’ Christian Wood punctuated the struggles with an impressive block of a Jaden McDaniels dunk attempt to zap all momentum out of the arena.
“I thought we created a lot of really good chances at times throughout the game,” Finch said. “Missed a lot of really good shots, particularly when we had a cushion and could have taken a four-point game to a double-digit game. But sometimes that happens.”
Gobert returned from a three-game absence with a vengeance, dominating the area around the basket, especially on offense. He scored 19 points, added 15 rebounds and four combined steals and blocks, and gave Minnesota a boost on a number of occasions when they were faltering.
Welcome back, Rudy! #RaisedByWolves | #NBA pic.twitter.com/El26XwgQQ3— Bally Sports North (@BallySportsNOR) December 22, 2022
Gobert slowed down a bit after scoring eight of the Wolves’ first 11 points. Both he and Finch felt the team left some opportunities on the table to find him on the roll.
“There were a lot of opportunities. I’m going to watch film, see how I can maybe get myself even more available. But I thought we could have hurt them even more inside, especially when I had smaller guys on me,” Gobert said. “The only thing they can do is foul, or bring another guy, and then I’m going to find shooters for clear shots.”
Anthony Edwards spent much of the first two quarters making plays for others, but he turned up the intensity in the building with a nine-point third quarter. Among the plays that got the crowd riled up: a pull-up three preceded by a string of dribble moves (and followed by words for the Mavs bench and a “too-small” gesture) and a transition block on a cherry-picking Doncic.
Ant blocked Luka with his elbow! #RaisedByWolves | #NBA pic.twitter.com/7NGfTXzqVN— Bally Sports North (@BallySportsNOR) December 22, 2022
Austin Rivers continued to shoot the cover off the ball, making three of five 3-point attempts and dashing in strong drives to the bucket. Rivers has now made 25 of his last 34 field goal attempts, including a 15-of-20 mark from three.
The loss ends both the Wolves’ win streak and their home stand. They begin a vicious road trip in Boston against the Celtics Friday.