Luka’s shot making, Towns’ shooting struggles and more Western Conference finals takeaways

The Western Conference finals might be the most exciting series ever to be over this quickly.

Entering Tuesday, Dallas and Minnesota have played three absolute bangers in a row, the Mavs won all three in crunchtime and now we’re almost certainly just counting down the days until Dallas and Boston meet in the NBA Finals. That doesn’t preclude the idea that Minnesota can still win a game or two, but teams leading 3-0 have advanced in all 155 previous instances in NBA history.

I’m still processing the big-picture story of what’s happening here. How do you define a series that is 3-0 in favor of one team, with two of the wins coming on the road … and yet the losing team has had the lead at the 4:40 mark in the fourth quarter of all three games?

Do you chalk it up to the vagaries of MOML (Make or Miss League), that mysterious basketball force that, over short enough samples, can turn Karl-Anthony Towns into Chris Dudley? Do you assign it to some larger, more definable force, like that of a certain Slovenian guard whose domination of the series has been palpable in those last-second scenarios?

Similarly, do you put any stock in the fact that the clutch offense from both teams has mirrored a trend line from the regular season, or do you go back to the idea that these still are micro-samples that can easily be dwarfed by random noise? And where do strategic errors — such as Minnesota not subbing in offensive players on two key possessions at the end of Game 2 — fit into this?

As I said, none of that matters in the biggest of big pictures — it would take either a miracle, a catastrophic injury or both for Minnesota to win the series now. But in the telling of what happened and figuring out what it means ahead (for Mavs versus Celtics or Wolves versus second apron), it matters. Maybe Game 4 will give us more insight into the best way to think about this series.

In the meantime, I’ve got some smaller-picture thoughts. Five different things have stood out to me in this series that haven’t received enough attention but got stars in my notebook watching these games. Let’s tackle them while I still have a series to write about.

What do they do about Luka?

If you were designing a defense to stop Luka Dončić, what would be the most important things to take away? You would probably say don’t let him get all the way to the rim, obviously, as a first step. Make him shoot contested jump shots, and live with it if he makes a few, right?

Well, here’s Luka’s shot chart from Game 3.

He took 20 shots, and zero came in the restricted area. Go through the tape, and most of them were pretty well-contested too. So, Minnesota won, right?

Ha! Dončić scored 25 points on those shots! I’m not sure what you do about that other than shake his hand and say, “See you Tuesday.” The problem for Minnesota, of course, was the Timberwolves already were down two games when this happened … partly because Dončić had already done this before, making seven non-rim 2s in Game 1 en route to 33 points.

Dallas is putting up a 120 offensive rating in the series against a Minnesota defense that lead the league by a wide margin in the regular season. When I mine the depths for causes, the place I keep ending up at is, “I don’t know what you’re supposed to do about this.” Minnesota has been hurt by lobs and could clean up a couple other smaller things, but mostly, the shot making by Dončić and Kyrie Irving has just been absurd.

Dončić has even shown moments of adding to his considerable arsenal. He won Game 2 on a stepback 3 going to his right, a maneuver he rarely uses and is much more difficult for a right-handed player than the same move going left. In Game 3, he made catch-and-shoot 3s — a rare shot for him — from the hash mark on each wing. He spaced himself so far beyond the line that it was virtually impossible for his defender to close out effectively.

More surprisingly, Dončić has impacted the series at the defensive end, holding up well in isolations, resisting the temptation of sacrificing transition defense to yell at the refs and even contributing some in help situations. His steal at 1:06 of the fourth quarter in Game 1, baiting Mike Conley into throwing a lob that was deflected away, was arguably the game’s (if not the series’) most crucial stop. As talented as Dončić is, it’s scary to think he’s still getting better.

So what do you do if you’re Minnesota, other than hoping he misses some more of these jump shots? Well, there is one possible answer, but it’s complicated …

The Slo-Mo conundrum

Minnesota may not have any answers for Dončić in the grand sense. But one of the things about this series that I’m surprised hasn’t generated more comment is how much more effective Kyle Anderson has been guarding Dončić than any other Minnesota defender. Jaden McDaniels made second team All-Defense and has taken most of the reps on Luka, but Dončić has been consistently able to get into his body and then wheel and deal.

Anderson, in contrast, has been an extremely handsy pest and has done well matched up against Dončić all series. In Game 3, in particular, Anderson had some really notable possessions that might have been The Story if basketball games were only 43 minutes long, including a clean pick of Dončić’s dribble in transition that somehow was recorded as a steal for Anthony Edwards.

Watch this mouth-watering trip, for instance, as Anderson cuts off any shot for Dončić in the free-throw area — a place where the Mavs star has owned McDaniels — and then blocks his stepback going left. That is a shot we’ve seen very few defenders get to this season.

Anderson has done another subtle thing when guarding Dončić, not trying to get back in front of him when Dončić runs a pick-and-roll but instead trying to use his length to poke the ball and harass a shot attempt from behind. Dončić preys on defenders trying to reposition themselves, going up for the jumper just as they circle him to one side. Anderson doesn’t allow this.

Minnesota has had success playing Anderson as a de facto center when Rudy Gobert was off the floor. Unfortunately for Minnesota, that isn’t a big chunk of the game, and it’s tough to expand his role into Gobert-Anderson pairings due to the lack of shooting. It’s just too easy to guard for a team like Dallas that always has a shot blocker roaming the middle. Anderson-Gobert units have played 61 minutes this postseason and posted an anemic 99.2 offensive rating. In the regular season, it wasn’t a whole lot better, considering the lesser defenses they encountered (108.3, or roughly what 29th-ranked Portland produced).

At the margins, you wonder if Minnesota could lean into the matchup a bit harder. Chunks of Anderson’s minutes have come when Dončić isn’t even on the floor, for instance, and obviously, there have been some defense-only crunchtime possessions where he might have proven useful. It’s something to watch for, at least, in Game 4.

And it’s doubly notable because every other issue for the Wolves seems to involve similar trade-offs. Inserting Nickeil Alexander-Walker for Conley in the third quarter of Game 3, for instance, took away the double drag screens that were getting Conley switched onto Dončić and bedeviling the Wolves’ defense. With Alexander-Walker, however, flinging bricks (37.1 percent from the field for the playoffs, 29.3 percent from 3), it comes at too great an offensive cost. The opposite is true for pulling Gobert off the floor for too long to juice the offense — Minnesota’s defensive rating is a porous 135.4 in the non-Gobert minutes this series.

Talking about Towns

One of many ways to potentially define this series is, “Minnesota would be fine if Karl-Anthony Towns made shots he normally makes.” That’s a bit too reductionist, perhaps, but it’s not wildly off base. Towns has shot just 3 of 22 from 3 for the series, and nearly all of them have been catch-and-shoot triples he normally knocks down much more reliably. (Towns made 41.3 percent on the season and 39.8 percent for his career.)

On the other hand … Towns is also just 12-of-32 across the three games on 2s, and if you’re sick enough to go back through the tape and watch all 54 of his field goal attempts in this series (hi!), you’ll see Dallas’ defense has been a massive factor here. Dereck Lively II has either met him at the rim or dissuaded him from attacking on several occasions, while P.J. Washington has done a masterful job taking away his airspace on the block and funneling him toward shot blockers.

This is, quietly, kind of amazing; Towns scored 62 on Washington four months ago when the deadline pickup was still in Charlotte! Nonetheless, Washington’s defense in Dallas continues to be a revelation.

Watch here, for instance, as Washington sets the tone on Towns’ second shot attempt of the series, denying a post-up attempt by pushing him out of the best real estate and then getting a piece of Towns’ fadeaway.

He’s blocked three of Towns’ 54 shots in this series, but a more typical endgame for Towns’ isos against Washington has been like this next one: Towns spins baseline with his dribble, sees Daniel Gafford waiting for him at the rim and then has to deal with shooting a tough contested shot over Washington.

In contrast, you know what hasn’t really been a factor? Shots rattling in and out. After reading this Towns quote, one thing I charted was how many hit the rim at least twice before falling off; I could only find four, and only two were what most people would call true “in and outs.” Towns was correct, though, that one of them was his first shot of Game 2 on an open 3.

(While we’re here, a side note for every TV and radio crew, because I expect Minnesota is going to be on our sets quite a bit in coming years: It’s just “Towns.” He has a hyphen in his first name, not his last. There is no person here named Anthony-Towns. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.)

Fix the replay “no fouls on out of bounds” rule

One of the biggest moments of Game 2 came when Dallas won a replay challenge in the final minute because of an uncalled foul, depriving Minnesota of two free throws that could have extend its lead to four points with 47 seconds left. Even if the missed foul hadn’t been whistled (stuff happens), merely giving the ball back to Minnesota would have allowed the Wolves five seconds on the shot clock to extend their lead. We can’t say with certainty what might have happened for the Wolves, although clearly this event impacted their win probability.

What’s easier to say is that the rule stinks. To review, McDaniels lost a ball out of bounds because he was raked across the arms by Irving. The baseline official didn’t call a foul on the play but ruled the Mavericks last touched the ball before it went out.

The Mavericks challenged the call because, by rule, the official cannot go back in time and call a foul when reviewing an out-of-bounds call. Therefore, the only alternative available to the refs was to pretend the foul never happened and rule that it went out off McDaniels.

This is awful! You can’t make it so that a team “wins” a challenge because the ref missed their obvious foul.

This has been obvious for some time, but this might be the highest-leverage situation in which the stupidity of this rule interpretation has come into laser focus before a large audience.

Needless to say, the league’s competition committee desperately needs to change this rule, perhaps to make it more like the WNBA’s, which explicitly states that, on a replay review, officials may award the ball to the team that last touched the ball if it went out of bounds due to an obvious foul by the other team.

Finally, we’ve been so caught up in the stars that some of the secondary stories have been left out in the cold. In particular, I would point to the play of Dallas reserve guard Jaden Hardy, who has made just enough of an impact as a secondary creator to keep the wheels turning for the Mavs offense when either Dončić or Irving is off the floor.

Jason Kidd turned to Hardy late in the Oklahoma City series after Dante Exum’s reluctance to shoot proved too costly. Hardy has held down a rotation spot since then and is in some ways the anti-Exum — persuading him to shoot has never been an issue. He’s scored 17 points in 32 minutes this series without getting overly thirsty.

Watch this key play from the third quarter of Game 3. The Mavericks have a short clock to end the quarter and need Hardy to create something. He crosses up a good defender in Alexander-Walker then is able to absorb contact from Towns and finish.

Here’s another crucial play from early in the second quarter, where the Wolves forced the ball out of Irving’s hands during non-Dončić minutes (side note: Look at Slo-Mo’s defense). Hardy gets the ball, shucks off Conley and knocks down the leaning jumper as the shot clock expires.

 

Apart from the Mavericks’ two stars, this skill set just doesn’t exist across the rest of Dallas’ roster. While Hardy’s importance for the playoff run has become increasingly clear (he’s also moved ahead of Tim Hardaway Jr. in the queue), his play has another potential benefit. The second-year pro out of G League Ignite is only 21 years old and is on a minimum contract for one more year, which means he could provide an important low-cost contributor on a Dallas roster that will be fighting the collective bargaining agreement’s first and second aprons for the foreseeable future. Even beyond that, Dallas controls his rights in restricted free agency in 2025 and could sign him to an extension before next season.


Required Reading

(Top photo of Luka Dončić: Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

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