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Timberwolves blown out by Dallas in Game 5 to end historic season

It was clear from the way they spoke even as the series unfolded that the Timberwolves felt as though they were the better team in the Western Conference Finals.

It was an earned arrogance. Minnesota won 56 games during the regular season. It grounded Phoenix to a pulp in the first series. It rallied past the defending champ in Round 2 — behind a dominant second-half performance on the road in Game 7 in which it physically wore Denver down.

After that performance, many pegged the Wolves as a lock to reach the NBA Finals, and perhaps even win the whole thing. The Wolves clearly believed this much — if they played their brand of physical, defensive-minded basketball, they could not be beaten.

Dallas proved it all wrong on all accounts in this series — never more so than Thursday, when the Mavericks blitzed Minnesota from start to finish at Target Center en route to a 124-103 victory to close out the West Finals with a 4-1 series victory.

The Mavericks led by 36 points at one point in the third quarter.

After Dallas’ Game 4 defeat, Kyrie Irving lamented the lost opportunity to celebrate an NBA Finals berth in front of the home crowd.

“Sorry, fans,” Irving said in his postgame press conference.

It’s like he knew what was coming. Dallas played Thursday as though it was ready for this series to wrap, and there was nothing Minnesota could do about it.

Dallas had to settle for holding its trophy presentation at Target Center that, to be fair, proved to be awfully friendly confines for the Mavericks in this series. Dallas didn’t lose a game in Minneapolis.

Minnesota’s only victory in the series — Game 4 in Dallas — came with Mavericks center Dereck Lively II sidelined with a neck injury. He was back Thursday, meaning the Mavericks were again at full strength. And when the Mavericks were at full strength, they generally outplayed Minnesota.

And it always started up top.

Luka Doncic sucked the life out of a raucous Target Center in the first frame Thursday. He scored 20 points in the first quarter, going 4 for 6 from the 3-point line. The most impressive hit of the quarter came when Doncic smoothly pulled up from 32 feet and hit nothing but net.

If there’s such a thing as a statement shot, that was it.

“Luka. He hit like three shots from the logo,” Anthony Edwards said. “So nothing we could do about it.”

Doncic and Kyrie Irving were Batman and Robin all series. It was true again Thursday, as Doncic went off for 36 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, while Irving tacked on 36 points of his own.

Doncic was easily the best player in this series. But that was likely to be expected. But what killed Minnesota was that Irving was right behind him in the series rankings.

Those two rendered Minnesota’s defensive pressure — which demoralized Phoenix and Denver — effectively moot. The two were too skilled and too crafty to have the ball just taken away from them by a hounding defender. Irving blew by Minnesota’s perimeter pressure, while Doncic either got a guy on his hip and slowly walked to the paint, or drilled a step-back triple.

They were consistent offense in this series from start to finish.

“I think we had a lot of good defensive stretches,” Rudy Gobert said. “Luka and Kyrie are two unique players, and they’re able to, a lot of times, figure things out.”

Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said at various points throughout the series that Minnesota would simply need to score alongside the Mavericks. But that has never been the Timberwolves’ M.O. Their defense almost always sparked their offense.

The Wolves struggled in half-court sets against quality defenses. Dallas’ defense over the past three months has been the best in the NBA, even superior to Minnesota.

So when Minnesota had to generate offense in key spots, it almost never met the challenge.

“We’re not the best offensive team. We always depend on our defense,” Edwards said. “We’re a defensive team. We’ve got to start there every night.”

But you can only lean so far in one direction in the playoffs before you’re eventually exposed by the wrong opponent. That will be something for Minnesota to address in the offseason. The offensive end is what needs to round into form for the Timberwolves to take the next step and build upon this historic season.

The Timberwolves won a series for the first time in 20 years. Then they won another. They were the NBA’s best defense over the course of the full season by a mile and knocked off the defending champion Denver Nuggets when few gave them an opportunity to do so.

Edwards — who scored 28 points Thursday to tie Karl-Anthony Towns for the team high — ascended to become one of the best, and perhaps most liked, players in basketball. Rudy Gobert won another Defensive Player of the Year honor. The Target Center crowd was treated to an enjoyable brand of basketball all season long.

After booing at points in the third frame as the season unraveled before their eyes, fans sent Minnesota out with a sea of cheers — and one more “Let’s Go Wolves!” chant — as the final horn sounded Thursday.

But the bad taste of the final game fans saw up close and personal will likely linger for awhile.

“We’ll be back,” Edwards said. “We’ll be alright.”

“We’ll be right back,” Gobert said, “and even better.”

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