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Mavericks' big men gear up for challenge from towering Timberwolves

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Dereck Lively II and the Mavericks will have their hands full with Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert.

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DALLAS (AP) — Daniel Gafford remembers facing Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and company about two weeks before he was traded to the Dallas Mavericks this season.

That memory alone is enough for the 6-foot-10 center to know the challenge that’s coming when the Western Conference finals start Wednesday night at the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Make that the towering Timberwolves, even for Gafford and 7-foot-1 rookie Dereck Lively II.

“It was for sure a rough game, going against Rudy under the basket, KAT driving down the basket,” Gafford said of 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 one time is just something that was challenging,” Gafford said. “But I feel like with the growth that I’ve had coming to this team, I feel like I’ve taken a step in the right direction.”

The headliners in pursuit of a spot in the NBA Finals are All-Stars Luka Doncic of Dallas and Anthony Edwards, who led the Timberwolves with 38 points on the night Gafford brought up.

The frontcourt will be a focus as well, though. That’s partly because the Mavs have an inside presence they couldn’t have imagined before the season with the emergence of Lively and the addition of Gafford.

The Mavericks beat top-seeded Oklahoma City in six games in the second round, in part because they kept 7-foot-1 center Chet Holmgren from dominating the middle.

Dallas couldn’t forget about Holmgren at the 3-point line, which won’t be the case with the 7-foot-1 Gobert. Instead, the Mavs will try to lure away from the rim a guy who was just named NBA Defensive Player of the Year for the fourth time.

In the first round two years ago, the Mavs neutralized Gobert in a six-game victory over the Utah Jazz. Dallas reached the West finals then as well, losing to eventual champ Golden State.

“It’s two different teams. And they’re playing two different defenses,” Mavs coach Jason Kidd said. “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 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 appeared he would back up Lively, the 12th overall pick in last year’s draft. The fifth-year pro started his Dallas stint so strongly, he eventually took over as the starter.

But the Mavs are coming off a Game 6 victory in which Lively was so effective (plus-26 with 15 rebounds and 12 points) that he played the rest of the way in the one-point win after replacing Gafford (minus-25 with 10 points and seven rebounds) with 6:26 remaining in the third quarter.

Lively, who was limited to 55 games by injuries, was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie second team 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 much like Gafford and Lively in that his points most likely will come from pick-and-rolls, post-ups and put-backs.

Dallas also can’t forget about the 6-foot-9 pair of Jaden McDaniels and NBA Sixth Man of the Year Naz Reid, who help round out the league’s No. 1 defense and bring some pop on offense.

“We don’t have a big three, we have a big 15,” Towns said while sitting next to Edwards after Minnesota rallied from 20 points down in the second half of a Game 7 victory that ousted the defending champion Denver Nuggets on their home court.

“Every single person means a lot to this team, and they help in so many ways,” Towns said. “This game shows it’s the Timberwolves, not Karl-Anthony Towns, not Rudy Gobert. The Timberwolves are a special team.”

It appears fifth-seeded Dallas will have to play without 6-foot-10 center-forward Maxi Kleber, who separated a shoulder in the first round against the LA Clippers. His threat at the 3-point line could have played a role in getting Gobert out of the paint. And the six extra fouls sure would help 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.

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