Timberwolves' trickiest matchup is neither of Mavericks' superstars

May 22, 2024; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns shoots against Dallas Mavericks center Dereck Lively II
May 22, 2024; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns shoots against Dallas Mavericks center Dereck Lively II / Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Mavericks are the first team to defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves in a Game 1 this postseason. Dallas defeated Minnesota by three points on Wednesday night behind stellar performances from Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving.

MVP-finalist, Doncic, scored 33 points and racked up eight assists. Irving dropped 30 points, 24 of which came in the first half. Although Doncic led the game in scoring, his primary defender did a fine job.

Doncic's defensive counterpart, Jaden McDaniels, held the superstar guard to 6-of-14 shooting and forced two turnovers. The 6-foot-9 wing has made life difficult for every one of his oppositions thus far. McDaniels' opponents are shooting nearly five percentage points fewer than their average field goal percentage this postseason.

Irving's primary defender, Anthony Edwards fared worse on the less glamorous end. Irving scored just eight points against Edwards, but he forced the action by knifing his way into the paint, creating plays for others, and scoring before the Minnesota bigs could contest.

Despite the superstars' impressive performances, neither led the Mavericks in plus/minus—that title belonged to 20-year-old rookie Dereck Lively II. The former Duke Blue Devil led all players with a plus-19 plus/minus. He played in 26 minutes, scored nine points, hauled in 11 boards, and didn't miss a single field goal.

Dereck Lively II proving to be Wolves' kryptonite

Besides his offense, the rookie big man impressed on defense. Lively II added two blocks and recorded seven defensive rebounds. Most importantly, his matchups made only 7-of-18 field goal attempts and turned the ball over three times.

Lively II's primary matchups—Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns—combined to go 0-of-7 from the floor when defended by the All-Rookie second-teamer. The 7-foot-1 center's length and agility have been unlike anything Minnesota's seen in these playoffs.

In nine fourth-quarter minutes, the rookie center scored only two points. However, his defense paid dividends. Lively II's teammate, fellow center Daniel Gafford, began the fourth quarter. He played only three minutes and registered a minus-9 in limited action.

The 6-foot-10 Gafford is a good player, but he hasn't presented the same problems for Minnesota as Lively II. What makes Lively II such a game-changer is his mobility. Lively II defended guards in space, slid over to cut off drivers—altering shots at the rim, and played sound one-on-one defense against Towns.

On offense, Lively II provided a spark as a roll-man. The Wolves have yet to face off against a dynamic rim-running center this postseason. Against the Denver Nuggets, Gobert played the role of a roamer. Towns matched up with Nikola Jokic, while Gobert helped on cutters and Jokic himself.

The Mavericks initiate the offense using a bevy of high pick-and-rolls. Whether it be Doncic or Irving, each guard excels at coming off a pick and scoring or tossing a lob to either Lively II or Gafford. Minnesota's drop coverage encouraged the Mavericks' pick-and-roll. Instead of stymying Doncic or Irving coming off a pick, the Wolves' bigs backed up to allow the guard to get back into a defensive position.

However, this strategy was inefficient against Dallas. Doncic and Irving routinely got to whatever spot they wanted. Both guards excel in the mid-range and the rim, where each of the two comfortably made their way.

The drop-coverage tactic also forced the big to commit early if Donic or Irving paved deep into the paint. And if a Minnesota big played a Dallas guard too early, they'd easily lob it up for one of Lively II or Gafford to throw down a monstrous slam.

Veteran point guard Mike Conley made it known that the Timberwolves weren't supposed to be in drop coverage following the game. Conley said, "We were told to be up. We were trying to take away those guards…and rely on the backside who can muddy up the roller…"

Instead of allowing the superstar guards to stroll into the painted area, they were supposed to be jumped upon a pick-and-roll. This strategy certainly suits the Wolves better as the Mavs don't possess a short-roll passer. Both Dallas bigs are strictly lob finishers.

Going into Game 2, Minnesota must remain consistent in their defensive approach. Rather than allowing Doncic or Irving to make a play, force the bigs into the decision-making process. Doncic scoring 30-plus isn't as detrimental as Lively II recording a plus-19.