Fate of the Western Conference Finals may hinge on the health of Dereck Lively II

The balance of the Western Conference Finals may very well rest on the shoulders – err, neck – of a 20-year-old rookie center.

That’s how much Dallas big man Dereck Lively II has meant to the Mavericks all season, but especially in this series.

“He’s an outstanding young player, big part of what they do,” Wolves coach Chris Finch said. “When they put those two bigs together, they just keep coming at you. A lot of size, a lot of bounce, a lot of activity and swallows up the rim. Yeah, no doubt they miss him.”

Lively has missed the last six quarters of the series with a sprained neck suffered when he took an inadvertent knee from Karl-Anthony Towns to the back of the head in the second quarter of Game 3.

With him sidelined, Minnesota roared back in the third quarter of Game 3 before dropping the game in crunch time. Then the Wolves won Game 4 to extend their season.

The ways in which Minnesota has achieved its success suggests it correlates with Lively’s absence.

The Wolves – specifically Anthony Edwards and Towns – found more of an offensive rhythm in Game 4. That seemed to start with having more success around the rim. Over the first two games of the series, Minnesota shot 47 percent inside eight feet. Over the past two games, that number has spiked to 65 percent.

Why? It relates specifically to Lively’s minutes, and who’s filling them. Because Minnesota is still struggling to produce on the interior when Daniel Gafford is in the game, but Gafford has been backed up by Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber – power forwards who are no threat to block shots.

When those two have played, the Wolves are 11 for 12 from inside eight feet, and are shooting 52 percent in that range when they’re not on the floor. Dallas is able to maintain constant rim protection when it can platoon Lively and Gafford together.

“When you don’t have that and Gafford’s not playing 48 minutes, there are spells where you can get downhill and get into the paint and try to finish and utilize that to our advantage,” Wolves guard Mike Conley said.

Lively’s absence is felt just as much on the offensive end. That’s where he’s superior to Gafford. Dallas is scoring a scorching 132.5 points per 100 possessions this series when Lively is on the floor. He’s 13 for 13 from the field and, just as importantly, has seven assists to just one turnover. He’s an elite lob threat, but also is a strong decision maker when he catches the ball out of the roll. Lively gives Dallas another legitimate offensive threat for which the Wolves have to account, which isn’t easy to do when Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving are also on the floor.

Lively told Andscape his injury is a “day to day” thing that he’s not trying to rush. Dallas upgraded him to questionable for Game 5 on Thursday in Minneapolis after he was doubtful for Game 4. If the big man can return for the remainder of this series, the task of winning three more games is far more daunting for Minnesota.

“Yeah, he’s a big piece to our defense and offense,” Doncic said. “We miss him a lot.”

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