Karl-Anthony Towns played a big role in saving the Timberwolves from elimination

DALLAS — The Minnesota Timberwolves again held a small lead in the fourth quarter of the Western Conference finals, just as they had in the first three games against the Dallas Mavericks. There was a little over five minutes left to play and the score was 92-90. Given the way this series played out in the first three games, the Timberwolves could have trailed by as many as 10.

The Wolves had the ball in the frontcourt with the shot clock ticking down, and that’s when Kyle Anderson started strategizing. The ball was in Anthony Edwards’ hands, and Anderson motioned Karl-Anthony Towns, the Wolves’ All-Star whose jumper has been falling apart in this series, to the corner.

As Edwards drove toward the paint, he got up and could have easily taken a difficult, but possible, pull-up jumper. But Anderson pointed hard at Towns in the corner, and Edwards did it. It didn’t matter that Towns had struggled so much to shoot the ball in the first three games, including going 0 of 8 from 3-point range in Game 3. Anderson trusted him and so did Edwards, who threw him a pass.

Towns was in foul trouble throughout the game, and the main reason for that was a couple of mistimed reach-in fouls. He only had five points in the first half, which didn’t help his cause after shooting 15 of 54 from the field and 3 of 22 from 3 in the first three games. But he started to find his rhythm in the third quarter, and the trust his teammates put in him in the fourth quarter only made it stronger. He got up and scored a 3, his second of the quarter, to make it 95-90.

He added another 3 a few minutes later to help the Timberwolves escape with a 105-100 win over the Mavericks. Towns scored 25 points on 9-13 shooting, including four 3s and five rebounds, before he fouled out. There were still some head-scratching decisions and ill-advised fouls, but it’s Towns’ shotmaking that has eluded the Wolves in three very close losses early in this series.

“Everything came together for him,” said Edwards, who had 29 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. “He was very confident. He wasn’t worried about any of the shots he made tonight. He played exceptionally well, and he came through big time. He was the reason we won tonight.”

The Timberwolves are trying to become the first NBA team to come back from 3-0 down to win a best-of-seven series. They lost Game 1 by three points, Game 2 by one and Game 3 by nine and blew leads in the final five minutes of each of those games. The Mavericks won all of those games thanks to excellent shotmaking from Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving and some uncharacteristic misses from Towns. He was 0 of 8 from 3 in Game 3 and 2 of 9 in Game 1, a performance unbecoming of a big man who prides himself on hitting outside shots to give Edwards the space he needs to get to the rim.

Early in Game 4, Towns heard it all. The TNT folks berated him for hitting too many 3 shots. The NBA world forgot his major contributions in wins over Phoenix in Round 1 and Denver in Round 2 and focused only on his struggles against Dallas.

Some of the criticism was hard to dismiss. Towns was playing frantic basketball, increasing the pace of his game to take advantage of opportunities and instead getting bogged down in a flurry of missed 3s and offensive fouls.

Throughout the game, the Timberwolves and their fans were forced to wonder what could have been. What if Towns had been competent with his shooting stroke in the first three games instead of a disaster? If his 3-point percentage in the first three games had been a mere 30 percent instead of 13.6, would the Wolves have gone 3-0?

Towns surprised himself. He wanted to carry the good feelings he got from his strong performances against Phoenix and Denver into this Dallas series. He would match up favorably against P.J. Washington, Daniel Gafford and several of the Mavericks’ athletic, but slightly smaller, frontcourts. But Towns was unable to take advantage of the matchups in the first three games. His shot was inaccurate to the point that the Mavericks didn’t have to worry about him doing much damage and allowed them to put more of an overload on Edwards as he tried to get to the basket.

Calling him to get on the block and work down low when his 3s weren’t falling also didn’t make much sense. Towns is an excellent player in the post. Whenever he tries to bully a smaller opponent, he often draws a foul with a hook of his arm or a drop of his shoulder. He picked up three offensive fouls in Game 4, a lack of control that could have cost his team the game and the series.

To his credit, he found a way to play extended minutes even in foul trouble in the third and fourth quarters. After scoring just five points at halftime, Towns scored 10 in the first six minutes of the third quarter and 10 in the fourth quarter to help seal the game.

“There’s no time to have any doubts in your mind, especially this time,” Towns said. “It’s Game 4, down 3-0, there’s no time for any doubts. Go out there and be aggressive, shoot your shots like I’ve been doing all series, be confident on every shot you take.”

It was a pivotal piece of basketball for Towns. He had five points, one rebound and three fouls in the first half of Game 4, and the Barbarians were standing at the gate, just waiting to tear them to pieces after the Mavericks’ inevitable sweep. Then he scored 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting, hit three 3s in the fourth quarter and regained his confidence after the lethargy of the first three games.

“He saved the Timberwolves’ season tonight,” TNT’s Charles Barkley said after the game. “So give him the flowers. He deserves it.”

This is the way it should have been for Towns. He couldn’t go out like this, knocking down 3s and getting stuck at the rim. He’s had a renaissance season in Year 9, improving his defense and making his fourth All-Star Game. He’s been good in the playoffs, putting up stellar performances in closeout games against Phoenix and Denver to help the Wolves reach their first conference finals since 2004.

There’s no way he’s going to be out there making 3s and missing defensive assignments like he has been doing through the first three games. There’s no way Timberwolves fans won’t get another home game to cheer on a team that’s reviving the Wolves brand in Minnesota. Something had to give.

“I’m very proud of him,” Wolves coach Chris Finch said. “He’s been a key part of every series up until then and we knew we had to get him involved in this one. Tonight was a great step up for him.”

The Wolves also played their best defense in the series, holding the Mavericks to 42 percent shooting. Doncic shot 7 of 21 with three turnovers and Kyrie Irving shot 6 of 18 with four turnovers, a significant departure from their nearly flawless execution to finish the first three games. Both stars missed shots as usual, but Finch’s decision to change the defensive matchups and put Edwards on Doncic and Jaden McDaniels on Irving appeared to be effective for at least one game. The adjustment was born not of talent, but desperation.

“We were down 3-0,” Finch said. “We were just turning over a deck of cards.”

The Wolves were also helped by the absence of Mavs rookie Derek Lively II, who has wreaked havoc with his rim protection in this series. Lively was out with a neck strain after taking an inadvertent knee to the head from Towns in Game 3. That opened up driving lanes for Edwards. Whether it was half court or transition, Edwards didn’t wait for the Mavericks’ bigs to gather near the rim. He made his move quickly and strongly, scoring 14 points in the first quarter and shooting eight free throws to put the Wolves ahead early.

“We wanted him to be aggressive,” Finch said. “He made some great plays, made some great shots. They were putting a lot of guys on him. Some guys were open, so I thought we had a lot of options.”

In the end, it was just one game. The Wolves still have a mountain to climb. If the Mavericks get Lively back for Game 5 in Minnesota on Thursday, it will be even more difficult for them. Both Doncic and Irving will likely shoot better, putting even more pressure on a defense that hadn’t been able to stop Dallas at all until Tuesday.

But this was the closest version of the Timberwolves came to being resourceful, tough-minded and relentless. It wasn’t always pretty. They gave up 30 points off 15 turnovers. They had 10 offensive rebounds despite Lively being out of the game. Towns, Rudy Gobert and Edwards all spent much of the game in foul trouble. There were some bad calls, for sure, but there were also some stupid calls the Wolves picked up with unfortunate reaches or underwhelming drives to the rim.

And yet, few thought the Wolves could win a game like this, one that relies on execution in the final minutes. In this regard, the Mavericks have been the better team throughout the series. But for one night, Minnesota found the upper hand.

After the game, a wave of relief swept through the Wolves locker room. No one there wanted to lose. The first step of their mission was accomplished, but they know they still have miles to go on this journey. Leave it to Edwards to spice up the night a little.

Dallas Cowboys star Micah Parsons stopped by the locker room to pay tribute to Edwards on Tuesday. Parsons also wore a pair of electric blue AE1s in tribute to Edwards. The Wolves All-Star noticed this and asked him what size shoe Parsons wears.

“He wears size 14 shoes,” Edwards said with a smile on his face. “I’ll get him some good shoes for Game 6. That’s what I told him.”

(Karl-Anthony Towns: Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)


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