The Dallas Mavericks’ big men form an impressive duo, but they now face a significant challenge from the towering Minnesota Timberwolves

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Dereck Lively tries to take the ball

Daniel Gafford recalls playing against Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, and their teammates about two weeks before he was traded to the Dallas Mavericks this season.

This memory alone makes the 6-foot-10 center aware of the challenge ahead when the Western Conference finals start Wednesday night at the Minnesota Timberwolves. For Gafford and 7-1 rookie Dereck Lively II, the Timberwolves are indeed formidable opponents.

“It was definitely a tough game, going against Rudy under the basket, KAT driving down the basket,” Gafford said, referring to Washington’s 118-107 loss in late January, when Towns scored 27 points and Gobert had 19 points, 16 rebounds, and four blocks.

“Just defending multiple areas at once is something that was challenging,” Gafford said. “But I feel like with the growth I’ve experienced since joining this team, I’ve made progress in the right direction.”

The main attractions in the race for an NBA Finals spot are All-Stars Luka Doncic of Dallas and Anthony Edwards, who led the Timberwolves with 38 points on the night Gafford mentioned.

Maverics and Thunder players try to control the ball

The frontcourt will also be crucial. This is partly because the Mavs now have an inside presence they couldn’t have anticipated before the season, thanks to the emergence of Lively and the addition of Gafford.

The Mavericks won against top-seeded Oklahoma City in six games in the second round, partly because they prevented 7-1 center Chet Holmgren from dominating the middle.

Unlike Holmgren, the Mavs won’t need to worry about 7-1 Gobert at the 3-point line. Instead, they’ll try to draw him away from the rim, where he was just named NBA Defensive Player of the Year for the fourth time.

Two years ago in the first round, the Mavs neutralized Gobert in a six-game win over the Utah Jazz. Dallas also reached the West finals then, losing to the eventual champions, Golden State.

Coach Jason Kidd said, “It’s two different teams. And they’re playing two different defenses. We’ll see if we can get him in different places on the floor. But 90% of the time, he’s by the rim. We’ve got to figure out how to get him away from the rim to give our scorers a clean look at the basket.”

When the Mavericks traded for Gafford, it seemed he would back up Lively, the 12th overall pick in last year’s draft. However, Gafford started his Dallas stint so strongly that he eventually became the starter.

Karl Anthony reacts after given a foul

Despite this, in their recent Game 6 victory, Lively was so effective (plus-26 with 15 rebounds and 12 points) that he played the rest of the game after replacing Gafford (minus-25 with 10 points and seven rebounds) with 6:26 remaining in the third quarter.

Lively, who faced injuries and played only 55 games, was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie second team on Monday.

“I thought he did a great job of imitating Moses Malone,” Kidd said after Dallas’ clinching victory over the Thunder. “It’s easy to say he should start, but he’s playing his role for us, and that’s coming off the bench and giving us energy and changing shots and finishing in the paint.”

The 7-foot Towns can score from anywhere for the third-seeded Wolves, while Gobert is similar to Gafford and Lively in that his points will likely come from pick-and-rolls, post-ups, and put-backs.

Dallas also has to keep in mind the 6-9 pair of Jaden McDaniels and NBA Sixth Man of the Year Naz Reid, who contribute to the league’s top defense and add some offense.

“We don’t have a big three, we have a big 15,” Towns said, sitting next to Edwards after Minnesota’s Game 7 victory over the defending champion Denver Nuggets. “Every single person means a lot to this team, and they help in so many ways. This game shows it’s the Timberwolves, not Karl-Anthony Towns, not Rudy Gobert. The Timberwolves are a special team.”

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander takes the ball forward

It looks like fifth-seeded Dallas will have to play without 6-10 center-forward Maxi Kleber, who separated his shoulder in the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Kleber’s ability to shoot from the 3-point line could have helped draw Gobert out of the paint, and his six extra fouls would have been useful on defense.

“One thing for sure, we got to make sure we stay out of foul trouble,” Gafford said. “Really, just stay patient. We’re not going to keep them from scoring points, but staying to our tendencies and just sticking to our principles is something that’s going to help us throughout this series.”

Maybe the lessons from a rough night in January can help Gafford as well.


By Christopher Kamila

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