Slow starts have been a theme for the Minnesota Timberwolves all season and tonight’s game was no exception.
The Dallas Mavericks built an early 15-point lead before the Timberwolves cut it to four points by the end of the quarter. The Mavericks got off to a hot start due to the scorching play of their star, Luka Dončić. Dončić racked up a quick 16 points and four assists in the first quarter while also getting Jaden McDaniels in foul trouble with two quick whistles. On the other end, Dereck Lively II carried his weight by providing sound rebounding and tremendous verticality at the rim that really disrupted the Timberwolves’ rim attacks.
As the second quarter carried on, it was more of the same once Dončić subbed back in. His all-around shot creation generated tremendous looks for teammates at the rim and on the perimeter. His offensive gravity forced the Timberwolves to start blitzing the pick-and-roll, which Dončić didn’t have much trouble dissecting. With inconsistent rotations by the low man, the Timberwolves proceeded to rack up the fouls and surrender highly efficient looks to the Mavericks.
Dončić single handedly, as he’s prone to do, took the Timberwolves out of their typical defensive coverages. The Timberwolves’ point-of-attack defenders struggled to get around the initial screen, which was more than enough room for Luka. With his size and strength, the Wolves’ defenders couldn’t recover rim side, which led to Dončić getting great looks for himself. In an attempt to get him out of his zone, the Timberwolves started playing at the level, like we saw in previous seasons, to force the ball out of his hands. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Dončić is one of the best passers in the world and had no issues carving up the defense. If the low man was late on the rotation, the four-time All-NBA First Team guard fed his teammate on the roll. If the low man was too early, the 2019 Rookie of the Year made the perfect skip pass to the corner shooter. The Timberwolves couldn’t do anything to take him out of his zone.
Despite Dončić’s brilliance and Rudy Gobert and McDaniels both getting in foul trouble, the Timberwolves entered halftime down just one point. The Wolves’ offensive juice didn’t come from where we’d necessarily suspect. Unfortunately, Anthony Edwards was still clearly working off the rust as he had yet another slow start shooting 2-11 with three turnovers. Also, Karl-Anthony Towns had a quiet first half with just eight points on six shots, as he was doubled nearly every time he caught the ball in the post.
The real story of the first half was none other than Naz Reid. Reid clearly came to play as he dropped 19 points on 6-7 shooting and 5-6 from deep (a career-high for 3-point makes for a game, let alone a half), four rebounds, two assists, and one steal in just the first half. With Reid as the catalyst, the Timberwolves would’ve been in dire straits.
Along with Reid, Nickeil Alexander-Walker provided important minutes as well with 10 points on 4-4 shooting in the first half. Alexander-Walker was tremendous with his off-ball movement as he made himself available for open threes and had a few timely cuts. He also provided some much-needed defensive help. Even though he didn’t stop Dončić, he at least made him work and provided different looks.
Even with Edwards being a no show on offense and Gobert’s foul trouble, the Wolves yet again built up a third quarter lead to take into the fourth. Despite Dončić filling up the box score, McDaniels played about as perfect defense as you could hope for. He avoided fouling and didn’t worry about trying to get blocks or steals. Instead, his focus was on getting through screens as quickly as possible, being a pest, and putting as much length as possible in Dončić’s eyeline. The Mavericks still got some good looks, but they didn’t fall at nearly as an impressive rate as they did in the first half.
Dončić dropping 33 points with 11 assists in three quarters is far from ideal. However, it was clear that the Timberwolves’ strategy was to make everything difficult for him without fouling. While this allowed him to rack up gaudy stats through three quarters, it also forced him to expend an excessive amount of energy.
As the fourth quarter kicked off, it was clear that Dončić was exhausted. McDaniels won the war of attrition despite surrendering 39 points. McDaniels made everything immensely difficult for Luka, which frustrated him and wore him out. The Timberwolves provided help when needed, but tonight was a night where McDaniels showed his defensive brilliance as the four-time All-Star easily could’ve gone for 50-plus.
As they battled on defense, the Timberwolves just steadily executed on offense. Reid had a big shooting game and Towns finished with impressive numbers, but it was genuinely a full team effort. The ball moved with ease, forced shots were a rarity, and the ball security was largely sound. In the end, the Wolves grinded out a really impressive 119-101 victory.
McDaniels vs Dončić
This matchup has been entertaining in the past, but tonight was one of the most fun matchups between these two. McDaniels picked up two quick fouls, which sent him to the bench, as Dončić got off to a roaring start. Without McDaniels on the court, the Timberwolves had to resort back to their defensive strategy of playing at the level in an attempt to get the ball out of Dončić’s hands. The results were mixed at best.
The Ljubljana, Slovenia native rarely had issues making the right read as he consistently found the open man and countered whatever the low man on defense did. The Timberwolves dared anyone else on the Mavericks to beat them, and they couldn’t. Dallas as a whole shot 7-32 from three.
After the first quarter, though, this matchup really started heating up. McDaniels defended at an absurd level as he finished with only three fouls. His screen navigation, hands, and pursuit were tremendous. Dončić still put up bonkers numbers, but McDaniels wore him out which was evident in Luka lackluster fourth quarter. When McDaniels is healthy, this team’s defense goes to a different level.
Rough Scoring Night for Ant
Edwards had one of his worst scoring nights in a long time as he finished with nine points on 3-19 shooting. Despite a putrid shooting night, which is hopefully just working through the rust, Edwards found different ways to impact the game as he finished tied for a game high plus/minus of plus-20.
Ant played sound defense as he had a handful of possessions where he really pestered Doncic. He was also solid with his off-ball assignments, which helped him snag two steals. The biggest area of impact came with his passing, though.
The 2020 No. 1 overall pick finished with a season-high 11 assists, which also ties his career best. While there were certainly some forced shots, Edwards did a great job of finding his teammates and letting them make plays. None were more impressive, though, than Edwards’ late drive and kick to Mike Conley in the corner. It was a gorgeous read and even more accurate pass through traffic. Last season, there’s a minimal chance that Edwards would’ve made that pass, let alone know it was an option. Him developing into a legitimate playmaker, especially on nights when the shot isn’t falling, is so important for the development of this offense.
Strength in Numbers
It’s been a while since we’ve seen the Timberwolves at full strength, and tonight was a great example of the strength of their bench. On a night where the stars struggled to make a major impact, the bench stepped up in a big way combining for (garbage time excluded) 51 points, seven assists, 10 rebounds, three steals, and two blocks while shooting 58% overall and 58% from beyond the arc.
The Wolves won’t get this type of contribution from their bench on a nightly basis, but it’s clear that this team is no longer dead in the water when a star has an off night. When this team is healthy, they have a bench that has scoring versatility, defensive versatility, and experience. There are legitimate weapons that can help them win on a nightly basis. Fans used to question how much NBA caliber talent was even on the bench. Now, nights like this are no longer a surprise.