Jim Souhan
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DALLAS – Karl-Anthony Towns' greatest contribution to the Western Conference finals was not supposed to come from his right knee.

In the second quarter of Game 3 against the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday night, Towns went for a rebound and inadvertently kicked Mavericks standout rookie Dereck Lively II in the side of the head after Lively fell to the court. Lively did not return because of what was described as a neck strain.

With Lively out, the Timberwolves produced their best offensive quarter of the series in the third, with Towns briefly coming to life, but his series-long shooting slump helped doom the Wolves to a 116-107 loss and a 3-0 deficit in the series.

During this postseason, Towns was a big reason the Wolves won their first two series, and he is a major reason they are set up to be swept in the third.

"He struggled, of course," Wolves coach Chris Finch said. "It was hard to watch at times, but he had enough buckets here and there and kind of stayed in there defensively in the second half. Really pleased with the way he played, rebounded pretty well. But, yeah, you know, he's struggling, there's no doubt in that right now."

Towns went 0-for-8 from beyond the three-point arc and 5-for-18 from the field. For the series, he is 15-for-54 overall.

If Towns was shooting to his statistical norms, the Wolves would probably have won one or two of the first three games. Instead, he stood in a hallway outside the visiting locker room at American Airlines Center late Sunday night sounding like every player who has ever gone through a slump, mixing denial and hope into a nasty cocktail.

"It was deja vu because we come up again with a loss," Towns said while shaking his head and rubbing his face. "So we've been so good at getting those wins.

"... I put up 1,500 shots a day. Shot so well all playoffs. … Confidence extremely high and to be having these unfortunate bounces, these looks are just not going in. It's tough.

"... I don't mean to smile, but you have to laugh. It's very disappointing."

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Towns was wearing a faded jean jacket that read, on the back, "Miracle Academy." He wore a Yankees baseball cap, turned backward. He once called himself the greatest shooting big man in NBA history, and while statistics qualify him to be in that conversation, he might be dooming his reputation in this series.

It's not just his shot that is failing — it's his decisionmaking. He looks so desperate to turn around his fortunes that he's driving into traffic or rushing open shots.

He has the skill set to help the Wolves turn this into a competitive series, or at least to salvage a victory, but how do you resurrect your confidence when you're on the road, facing elimination in Game 4?

If Lively has a concussion or can't recover quickly from his neck strain, the Wolves should have a major advantage on the front line in Game 4. Lively's bounciness and savvy had helped him nullify the Wolves' supposed big-man advantage, but without him in the lineup, the Wolves offense began finding ways to get to the basket.

Kyle Anderson, who has one of the ugliest shots in the NBA, began weaving into the paint and scoring at will.

Towns, a far superior shooter, should be able to feast on this version of the Mavericks defense. But he disappeared in the fourth quarter when the game could have been won.

In the 2022 playoffs, D'Angelo Russell became so inept that Finch benched him late in games.

In the 2024 playoffs, Towns was benched during Game 2.

The Wolves might be asking themselves the same question regarding Towns that they asked about Russell: Can you keep him if you can't play him in the biggest moments?