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In clutch time, Mavericks have the edge on Wolves

DALLAS – Entering the Western Conference finals against Dallas, the Timberwolves said there wasn't much they could glean from their four regular-season matchups against the Mavericks.

The Mavericks added two significant pieces at February's trade deadline in center Daniel Gafford and forward P.J. Washington, after the Wolves completed their season series with Dallas.

Also, guards Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving played together in only one game against the Wolves.

But perhaps they should have been paying closer attention to what happened in that game, because it foreshadowed — specifically against the duo of Doncic and Irving as they have fallen behind 3-0 in this playoff series — the Wolves' fatal flaw: late-game execution.

On Jan. 7, the Wolves rolled into Dallas and were ahead 106-100 after Anthony Edwards hit a stepback jumper with four minutes remaining. Then the Mavericks outscored them 15-2 the rest of the way. Irving finished with 35 points and Doncic had 34. After the game, Edwards (who led all scorers with 36 points) complimented Irving and Doncic on their shotmaking down the stretch.

"I guess they was just hitting. They was hitting everything," the All-Star guard said then. "Luka hit the craziest threes, Kyrie hit some crazy shots, too."

Sound familiar?

This series has played out almost exactly like that game, with Doncic and Irving closing games much better than the Wolves, who have had the lead in the fourth quarter of each game but have no wins to show for it.

That moment in January could serve as a demarcation point in the Wolves season when it came to late-game execution on both ends of the floor.

Entering that night, the Wolves had the fifth-best clutch net rating in the league (22.4), and they seemed to find a formula with point guard Mike Conley handling the late-game offense.

But from that night onward, the Wolves had the worst net rating in the league in clutch situations. Both the offense and defense shared equal parts of the blame. Their offensive rating was a putrid 95.1 while their defensive rating was 123.6, more than 15 points per 100 possessions than their defensive rating for the season.

The Wolves did fine when games came down to clutch moments against Phoenix and Denver, but those playoff series also featured several blowouts in which the Wolves were winning comfortably at the end of games. The Dallas series has tested their mettle in possession games, and they have so far failed.

"Ant's young. He's 22. He's learning a lot about the game, learning a lot of it on the fly," Conley said. "KAT [Karl-Anthony Towns], he's been in the league awhile, but still the playoffs are new to him and the way that he's had to adjust a lot of his game and understanding how to play winning basketball at this stage of the game."

Conley spoke Monday from the team hotel right before the Wolves gathered to watch film of Game 3, and Conley said he hasn't been sleeping much recently, not so much a product of playing back the "what ifs" in his head, but rather being so close to his first finals appearance, but still so far from getting there.

"I have not slept, I can tell you that, this whole week," Conley said. "I know how hard it is to get here. I know how hard it is to have an opportunity like this. And they don't come very often.

"So to be looking up and you're down 0-3 and only four wins away from an opportunity of a lifetime, and something I've been thinking and dreaming about for 17 years and even as a kid before that — dreaming about my whole life — it's just something that I got to try to focus on what I can do next to help this team for Game 4."

Forward Jaden McDaniels also said Monday that he couldn't sleep. He also wasn't sure how better to guard Doncic late in games than he did in Game 3. On one play, when Doncic hit a shot while falling down, McDaniels even admitted to fouling Doncic in an attempt to stop him. It still didn't work.

"I did as much as I could," McDaniels said. "Just a pat on his back, for real."

Handshakes and back pats aplenty await the Wolves at the end of this series. Even facing a situation no team has come back from in NBA history, they vowed to keep their compete level high.

"It stays in the belief department right now," Conley said. "Just, mentally believing that it's one game. Just one game. Get one, bring it back to Minnesota and give ourselves a chance in this series. We're more than capable of doing that."