Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns reacts after being called for...

Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns reacts after being called for a foul in the second half of Game 7 of an NBA second-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets Sunday, May 19, 2024, in Denver. Credit: AP/David Zalubowski

MINNEAPOLIS — The road Karl-Anthony Towns has taken with the Minnesota Timberwolves to reach the Western Conference finals has been far more lonely and rocky than smooth and straight.

For all the setbacks and struggles over nine NBA seasons that largely overshadowed the success, Towns has seen the payoff this spring for his commitment to — and sacrifice for — a franchise long stuck as the league's most frequent losers.

“You see how at peace and happy he is right now,” coach Chris Finch said after Minnesota ousted defending champion Denver in Game 7 of their second-round series on Sunday. “He had to trust that he was never going to be marginalized. All young players always think they can do it all by themselves, but in this league nobody can. He's been on many teams where he's had to do a lot, and he's got incredible skill to do so, but he's really bought in to doing all the other things we need him to do.”

The Wolves host the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Wednesday night. Anthony Edwards and Luka Doncic will be the featured attraction on either side, but the Wolves wouldn't be here without Towns.

The four-time All-Star's overachievement on defense against Kevin Durant helped spur a first-round sweep of Phoenix. His close guarding of three-time league MVP Nikola Jokic contributed to the takedown of Denver. Towns is averaging 18.8 points and 9.3 rebounds over the 11 playoff games, with a 44% hit rate on 3-pointers and just 20 turnovers.

“Ant’s game complements KAT’s game and vice versa. When you talk about whose team it is, it’s kind of a funny phrase. You can see Ant is giving praise to KAT, and KAT’s giving praise to Ant,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “When you talk about great teammates, they play together at a high level.”

The Wolves are not only in rare position as the series favorite — albeit slight, at minus-185 to win according to BetMGM odds — but they've only made it this far once before.

Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, left center, celebrates with guard...

Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, left center, celebrates with guard Anthony Edwards, right center, after Game 7 of an NBA second-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets Sunday, May 19, 2024, in Denver. Credit: AP/David Zalubowski

Towns, the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, was a gangly 8-year-old growing up in New Jersey when NBA MVP Kevin Garnett guided the Wolves to the Western Conference finals in 2004.

“To be here this year with these guys and this team after all that,” Towns said, “it’s just super satisfying.”

Towns was drafted by executive and coach Flip Saunders, who died of cancer four months later. The only time the Wolves made the playoffs in his first six years was 2018, when Jimmy Butler sparked a 47-35 record — before instigating a conflict around contract demands and disparate personalities on his way out soon after that. The Wolves had a cumulative .361 winning percentage in those other five years.

After Towns played in all 82 games in his first three seasons, the injury bug began to find him. His overall performance in first-round series losses in 2018, 2022 and 2023 was mixed at best. Personally, the biggest blow of all came at the beginning of the pandemic when his mother, Jacqueline Cruz-Towns, died of complications from COVID-19.

Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, right, drives to the basket...

Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, right, drives to the basket as Denver Nuggets guard Reggie Jackson defends in the second half of Game 7 of an NBA second-round playoff series, Sunday, May 19, 2024, in Denver. Credit: AP/David Zalubowski

“He’s been through a lot. I’ve seen the work he puts in every day. He’s an amazing person, an amazing human being, and I want to see him win,” teammate Rudy Gobert said.

When the Wolves traded for Gobert before last season, the future for Towns in Minnesota turned cloudier. Their collection of maximum contracts has them headed for hefty luxury tax payments, making Towns a natural subject of trade speculation around the league. But president of basketball operations Tim Connelly believed in the two-big strategy that has flourished this season after a rough debut.

“It’s not often you ask your All-NBA player to kind of accommodate others as they come in, but he was one of the first to form a fast chemistry with Rudy,” Finch said.

PUTTING THE ‘D’ IN DALLAS

The acquisition by the Mavericks of Kyrie Irving to form a dashing pick-and-roll duo with the prodigious Doncic didn't take off on the first try, either.

They've hit their stride this spring, with trade deadline pickup P.J. Washington Jr. deftly complementing them as a third scorer and the recently formed center tandem of Daniel Gafford and Dereck Lively II providing stout defense around the rim. The Mavericks have held their opponents to 101 points or fewer in seven of their 12 playoff games.

TRIPLE-DOUBLE RUN

Doncic finished the last series with three consecutive triple-doubles, capped by 29 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in the clinching victory over Oklahoma City. The 25-year-old has four in these playoffs and seven in his postseason career.

Only four other NBA players have at least three consecutive triple-doubles in the playoffs: Wilt Chamberlain, Russell Westbrook, Draymond Green and Jokic. Chamberlain and Jokic share the record of four, and both won the title the year they did it — 1967 for Chamberlain with Philadelphia and 2023 for Jokic with Denver.

RALLY RECORDS

The Wolves came back from a 20-point deficit in the second half against Denver for the biggest Game 7 rally since the NBA began tracking play-by-play data 28 years ago. The Mavericks trailed by 17 points in the second half in their series-clinching Game 6 victory against Oklahoma City, the largest postseason comeback in franchise history.

RARE AIR

The Minnesota Lynx, who share with the Wolves the Target Center arena and team headquarters across the street, were WNBA champions in 2011, 2013 and 2015. None of the major Minnesota men’s professional sports franchises has reached the final round, however, since the Twins were baseball’s world champions in 1991. That’s also the last time a local men’s team won a title.

Even a spot in the semifinals has been elusive in this state. Since the Wolves made their only other Western Conference finals appearance in 2004, Minnesota has had only three final-four teams over a possible 79 combined seasons in the NBA, NHL, NFL and Major League Baseball. The Vikings had the other two, making the NFC championship games after the 2009 and 2017 seasons.

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