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The Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves will meet in the Western Conference finals, queue up the Paul Rudd Hot Ones meme, where he says "Look at us, who would've thought? Not me!"

The Wolves bested the defending champion Denver Nuggets in an exhilarating Game 7 comeback win to reach their first conference finals since 2004. The Mavericks knocked off the No. 1-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder with a comeback of their own in Game 6 to reach their second conference finals in three years. While many likely didn't expect either of these two teams to be here at the start of the season or even midway through the season, it's one of those matchups that, when you look at it on paper, gets you really excited to watch. 

The star power on both sides, the way both teams play with aggressive, tough-minded defense, and the shotmaking and clutch performances we've already seen from both teams in the playoffs are enough reasons to get amped for a Mavs-Wolves meeting, And if the semifinals were any indication of how this series would go, we should be in for a really tough battle to decide which of these teams will represent the West in the NBA Finals.

As we get ready for Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Wednesday, here are the top storylines and biggest questions that will decide this series:

A frontcourt battle

We just saw the Timberwolves dispose of the Nuggets by neutralizing everyone around Nikola Jokic in hopes of forcing him alone to beat them. It worked, and that's because of the performances from Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns, especially Towns in that Game 7 comeback win on Sunday. When the Wolves traded for Gobert, they envisioned creating a big two situation with him and Towns, a duo that would suffocate even the best bigs in the league on defense, and cause headaches on offense with the versatility of Towns and the easy buckets that Gobert is capable of getting around the rim. That plan came to fruition against the Nuggets, and the length and size favors Minnesota again against the Mavericks.

Dallas has two athletic, explosive bigs in Daniel Gafford and Dereck Lively II, but they work best on offense as lob threats, and with Gobert and Towns manning the paint, those lob opportunities will likely dry up. This is where Maxi Kleber would've come in handy for the Mavericks. He's a big who can stretch the floor to pull Gobert or Towns out of the paint, opening up the rim for Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving. But neither Lively nor Gafford possesses that ability, so their usefulness on offense may fall by the wayside. 

The one area where Lively will be useful is his offensive rebounding. That was the difference maker down the stretch for Dallas in Game 6 against the Thunder. If he wasn't grabbing the offensive boards himself, Lively was wreaking enough havoc down low to allow another Mavericks player to corral the ball. Of the teams remaining, Dallas is the best offensive rebounding team, grabbing 12.1 a game. The Mavericks also rank first of the remaining teams in second-chance points at 14.7 a game. If Lively is able to leave his mark on this series in the same way, the Mavericks have shown they can take advantage of those second-chance opportunities.

That's where the question comes in as to how much longer Gafford starts over Lively. The rookie big man was a significant reason why the Mavericks managed to overcome a huge deficit in Game 6 to close out the series with his disruptive play in the paint on both ends of the floor. He's also a lot more mobile of a defender than Gafford and is more capable of getting out to the 3-point line quicker to close out on a shooter. Gafford is a good rim protector, but Lively's provided so much energy and hustle that it warrants starting him in this big moment. And from a matchup perspective, I feel like Lively has a better shot to limit Gobert from getting offensive boards than Gafford does. 

Role players to watch

Dallas doesn't win its series against OKC if not for PJ Washington and Derrick Jones Jr. Both guys took turns scoring 20+ points throughout that series, which probably felt like a breath of fresh air for Doncic, who in Dallas' past postseason runs, has had to put up 35+ or sometimes 40+ points just for the Mavericks to win a single game. But against the Thunder, it felt like Dallas was a team, not just the Doncic show. Those two guys will have to continue to show up for Dallas to have a chance. The Mavs shouldn't be relying on Washington and Jones Jr. to get them 20+ points every game, but they need to knock down open 3s that they're bound to get. The same goes for Josh Green and Tim Hardaway Jr., the latter of whom has been non-existent and played limited minutes because he's shot the ball so poorly.

For Minnesota, that production needs to come from Jaden McDaniels, Mike Conley, 2024 Sixth Man of the Year Naz Reid and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. At least two of those guys need to pop off for the Wolves each game because it can't just be the Ant and KAT show over the course of this series, not if the Mavericks are hitting shots at a high clip. Alexander-Walker specifically has been having a tough time finding his shot from deep throughout the playoffs, and as a career 35.9% 3-point shooter and someone who shot nearly 40% from deep in the regular season, it would do wonder for Minnesota's offense if he starts knocking down some 3s. 

Both teams get near identical production out of their bench, but the Wolves have a deeper second unit with more high-quality players. Using that to their advantage to wear the Mavericks down will be crucial. Because while Dallas ranks just behind Minnesota in bench points in the playoffs, Lively has really been the only consistent bench player for it throughout the postseason.

Which stars will show up more consistently?

Role players can have career nights, or the defense could be clicking, but nothing is going to matter if your stars don't show up. That was almost true for the Wolves in Game 7 when Anthony Edwards went just 6-of-24 from the floor. The same was true for the Mavericks when Irving had just four points at halftime in Game 6 against the Thunder, with the Mavericks down 16 points. This series is going to hinge on which stars show up more consistently and make adjustments to what the defense is giving them. 

Doncic is going to be guarded by Jaden McDaniels, and we've already seen in both the Phoenix and Denver series how much of a lockdown defender he can be. The Mavericks will surely try to pull Gobert or Towns into switches to get McDaniels off of him, and if that's a successful tactic, then it should favor Doncic. We'll see if Minnesota follows OKC's plan of throwing doubles early at Doncic and Irving and forcing everyone else to beat them. Because if that's the plan, we saw how the Mavericks are comfortable with their role players knocking down shots. 

Irving's most likely going to have Edwards on him, who relishes in taking on major defensive assignments. Irving had a quiet series against the Thunder, and as the Wolves try to slow down Doncic, Irving will probably get more opportunities to take the reins of the offense. He'll need to show up in more than just the second half for the Mavericks to have a chance in this series.

For the Wolves, I imagine the Mavericks will stick Jones Jr. on Edwards, and perhaps surrender size and put Washington on Towns. Jones will give Edwards some issues with his length and athleticism, but Edwards has been on a tear in this postseason run. He's been incredibly efficient shooting the ball (50.4% FG, 39/8% 3P), and aside from some dud performances -- like his Game 7 showing vs. Denver -- he's been as sure a thing as they come for Minnesota on offense. He has the strength advantage over Jones Jr., so it will be interesting to see if he opts to attack the paint more because once Edwards gets downhill, he's difficult to contain.

If the Mavericks do manage to contain Edwards somehow, that means Towns will have to consistently take advantage of a clear mismatch he's going to have with whoever Dallas puts on him. You can't put Gafford or Lively on him because that allows Towns to dump it to Gobert for an easy look at the rim. You can't put a smaller guy on him because he can just back them down to the rim. If Washington's on Towns, he'll have to try his best to hold his own, but just from the onset, this is where the Wolves should be attacking Dallas' defense the most. They don't have a quality player to put up against Towns and he should be able to take advantage of that. 

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