Timberwolves’ season-long late-game woes coming back to bite them in West Finals

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DALLAS – Minnesota’s biggest flaw heading into the postseason was quite obvious to anyone who paid attention throughout the course of the regular season – the Timberwolves couldn’t close games.

Minnesota was quite literally one of the worst in clutch-time situations over the back-half of the campaign.

Clutch time is defined as the time in the final five minutes of a contest in which the margin is within five points. In those situations post-Christmas, the Wolves were out-scored by 26.5 points per 100 possessions. Their defense was bad in clutch time, and their offense was worse. Ball holding, indecision and a lack of player movement left Minnesota’s late-game offense often stuck in the muck. Misses and turnovers prevented Minnesota from getting back and setting its defense up to its optimal setup, which makes getting stops a chore.

That figured to bite the Timberwolves in the playoffs.

But it didn’t – not through the first two rounds, anyway. Anthony Edwards obliterated Phoenix down the stretch of Game 4 to close out Minnesota’s first-round sweep in the only competitive contest between the two teams.

Against Denver, Game 1 and Game 7 were both in doubt in the closing minutes, only to have Minnesota’s offense prove largely unstoppable to secure the first and last victories of the series.

The problems appeared to be solved – until they weren’t.

The late-game issues have reared their ugly heads in the Western Conference semifinals. Minnesota led the bulk of the first two games of the series, only to squander advantages late. The Wolves rallied in the second half of Game 3 on Sunday and held a two-point lead with five minutes to play after Kyle Anderson’s toss at the hoop dropped to beat the shot clock with 5 minutes, 5 seconds to play.

That was the last bucket of consequence the Wolves would score. Minnesota tallied just one point between Anderson’s miraculous shot and Anthony Edwards’ irrelevant layup with 15 seconds to play – a Naz Reid free-throw. In between those buckets were seven missed shots and turnover.

Edwards said the ball was sticking too much in the Wolves’ hands, particularly his.

“I thought it was our offense that broke down, more than anything. You’ve got to try to score alongside of them,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “We just didn’t execute very well, didn’t find the open guy very well down the stretch. And when we had open looks, they were nowhere near going in.”

It is tough to win that way.

As it is when you commit two turnovers in the final minute of regulation, like Minnesota did in Game 2 en route to blowing a five-point advantage in the final 90 seconds.

Then there’s Game 1, which Minnesota led by four with 3 minutes, 37 seconds to play, only to then go scoreless until Reid scored with 10 seconds to play. That fatal scoring drought featured four missed shots and three turnovers.

And Dallas is doing the complete opposite on the other end of the floor. The Mavericks – who sported the NBA’s fourth-best clutch-time net rating post Christmas, outscoring opponents by 23.8 points per 100 possessions – are routinely carving Minnesota’s top-ranked defense up with the game on the line.

Oftentimes it’s via Luka Doncic sizing up an opponent 1 on 1 before either getting to the mid range to knock down a jumper, or hitting a stepback triple. At other points, he’s catching the Wolves napping, like he did late Sunday, when he saw Edwards’ back turned to the play and made a quick pass that led to a hockey assist on a P.J. Washington triple to put Dallas up 107-104. Minnesota never recovered.

“It starts with kind of a mental breakdown on a left-corner 3 from Washington when the game is tied,” Finch said, “and that gives them just enough breathing room.”

Dallas is out-scoring Minnesota by 39.2 points per 100 possessions in the clutch in this series. It’s the difference between the Mavericks being up 3-0 – the current state of the situation – and Minnesota potentially even leading the series.

“The whole series, we’ve struggled to close games. These three minute games that we’re playing, we’re losing,” Finch said. “That’s been the story of the series.”

It’s easy to look at that and think how easily things could be flipped. But the reality is the playoffs reveal who you are – both your strengths and warts. And this has been a major wart for Minnesota all season that was left unresolved, and now has the Wolves on the brink of elimination.

“If we were winning these games, you would feel confident when you look up and see four minutes left and you’re winning the game, you’re going to think positive thoughts,” Wolves guard Mike Conley said. “I can’t speak for every person but I’m sure we’re looking up and saying ‘How are we going to win this one? How are we going to figure it out?’

“That’s a moment of the game where we have to be tight, together and figure it out. Obviously, (the struggles are) on our minds. For the majority of the series, we were giving ourselves a chance, giving ourselves leads, giving ourselves opportunity. We know what part of the game we need to be better at. The part that’s gonna win us the game is that fourth quarter.”

Many basketball games are won in the final five minutes. Or, in the Wolves’ case, they’re lost.

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