The Timberwolves have harsh lessons to learn before they can become championship caliber

DALLAS — High-stakes playoff series are the ultimate mirror, the revelations a player can make with himself, and about his team, are laid bare.

And when we look into this playoff mirror, several things illuminate.

Like Jason Kidd being a championship-level coach, with no equivocation or second thought.

Like Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving being one of the most potent big-game duos we’ve seen in recent memory, now five wins away from the ultimate validation.

And more importantly, like the Minnesota Timberwolves, who see the harsh playoff lessons they must learn before they can become championship caliber.

The Dallas Mavericks will advance to the NBA Finals, barring something historic or unforeseen, in the coming days. The Timberwolves, by virtue of a 116-107 loss that puts them down three games to zero, will start the process of evaluation.

When you lose three straight close games to the same opponent in similar fashion, it says a lot about you, more than it does the opponent. Young teams, or teams with heavy inexperience, have a hard time closing games. It’s been the reason the Mavericks have won all three games thus far and the Timberwolves can’t crack the code.

The Timberwolves will lament the missed plays; they’ll lament the on-the-fly basketball IQ lacking in critical moments, ones they excelled in during the first two rounds of these playoffs. They’ll hear the roar from the American Airlines Center crowd, the chants of “sweep” that rained down in the final seconds of this loss.

Minnesota trailed 107-105 with 3:21 left but didn’t score another field goal until Anthony Edwards’ layup with 15 seconds left and the game decided. The team had one field goal in the last three minutes of Game 2, when it squandered a chance to tie the series.

Ditto in Game 1.

It’s becoming mental here, and despite the success in their road to get this far, it’s worth examining. They’re not quitting, they’re making adjustments in how they’re defending, and making extra efforts — but it’s the little things that feel so ginormous.

“If it were the opposite, if you were winning those games, you’d feel confident when you look up and it’s four minutes left, you’d think positive thoughts,” Mike Conley said. “I can’t speak for every person but I’m sure, looking up, we gotta figure this out. We gotta be tight, together. We’ve given ourselves a chance, opportunities, we know what part of the game we need to be better at.”

Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) grabs a rebound over Dallas Mavericks center Daniel Gafford (21) during the second half in Game 3 of the NBA basketball Western Conference finals, Sunday, May 26, 2024, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Karl-Anthony Towns has struggled all series long against the Mavericks. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Edwards was confident, defiant, even, in the locker room before taking the podium after the game. The 22-year-old talked to his teammates about getting one game, speaking openly about making history — as no team in NBA history has come back from a 0-3 deficit to win a series.

And while he didn’t produce his best fourth quarter (four points), he acquitted himself well overall in spurts — including a thunderous dunk over Daniel Gafford in the third and a burst that gave the Timberwolves a short lead before the quarter ended.

“Yeah, I mean, he needs to play like with that burst a little bit more,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “That's what has been missing. And that was key to everything for us to get some rhythm going, our offense, we were able to get to the heart of their defense a little bit quicker.”

His 26 points, nine rebounds and nine assists was his best showing of this series, but he could’ve done more, especially while watching the show Dončić and Irving (33 points each) are putting on against pretty good defense.

Edwards’ teammate, Karl-Anthony Towns, should’ve done more, and that’s where the Timberwolves’ focus must be this offseason. Towns is a talented and versatile big man, even calling himself the best-shooting big man in NBA history as if Dirk Nowitzki never lived, let alone sat courtside on Sunday night.

But the harsh verdict of history is heading his way, and it’s not pretty. Towns missed all eight of his 3-point attempts and shot 5 for 18 overall, continuing his series-long struggles of shooting exactly 27.8 percent (15 for 54).

For this current setup to work — for the Timberwolves to not just be satisfied as a franchise getting to the Western Conference finals— Towns will have to improve his decision-making or the franchise will have to consider what a future looks like without him, especially in a second apron luxury tax world.

A four-year, $221 million extension Towns signed will kick in next season, putting the Timberwolves in that dreaded second apron which will limit their ability to improve their team around the edges.

Towns’ ability to stretch the defense, rebound and defend opposing bigs while Rudy Gobert handles the majority of the defensive responsibilities makes the Wolves special on that end. But he couldn’t exploit the Mavericks using smaller defenders on him, especially when impressive rookie Dereck Lively II exited in the second quarter with a head injury following an inadvertent knee to the back of his head from Towns.

He became a liability.

Now, part of that could very well be a learning experience, as in the case of Edwards. Towns played well against the Suns and Nuggets, shooting well in both and limiting the silly fouls and mistakes. Or it could be a sign that the Timberwolves can only go so far with him during this window of contention.

It’s not the end; it’s part of NBA history. The Boston Celtics have gone through different iterations of themselves and maybe, just maybe, they’ve finally gotten it right.

This could be the first of many springs of fun for the Timberwolves, if they can learn from it. But it’s no guarantee for themselves or Towns.

“He struggled, of course, so it's hard to watch, you know, at times,” Finch said. “But you know, he had enough buckets here and there. In the second half, I was really pleased with the way he played rebounded pretty well. But yeah, he's struggling there's no doubt in that right now.”

It was only in bursts the Timberwolves were able to access the best version of themselves. Instances where Conley and Kyle Anderson played a deft two-man game with each other, finding the minute holes in Dallas’ defense, to help Edwards offensively. Conley nailed a 3 on the opening possession of the fourth to give the Timberwolves a 90-89 lead, thanks to Anderson fooling Dallas with an opposite-floor screen.

They tried it again, almost instinctively, a few minutes later, but the floor was gummed up by someone being out of place. It’s those little things, the lack of recognition in moments, that have prevented the Wolves from making a real dent in this series.

When they’re at that high point, it’s not hard to see why Edwards is confident, why they believe they’re the better team despite the results to date. When asked what stat stuck out to him most, Edwards pointed at the free-throw disparity, 31-17, in favor of Dallas.

There definitely felt like some inconsistency in the calls, but Dallas has been a physical aggressor all series long. The Mavericks are cooler when things get tight, and they're getting the benefit of the doubt.

“A lot of my fouls were fouls,” Conley said, who picked up his fourth foul in the third quarter. “It’s about consistency on both ends, that’s all we ask for.”

Edwards: “That’s all we want. If you call hands on when Mike fouls, then just call it down there. They did a great job tonight. We just ask for the same calls down there (on our end).”

Conley: “Consistency.”

The Timberwolves haven’t found consistency in the moments of truth in this series. We’ve seen it happen through this magical run, and the disappointment doesn’t negate everything they’ve achieved thus far.

It just lets everyone know, with clear eyes, what must be done to go further.