WHERE: Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota
WHEN: 7:00 PM CT
HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN: Bally Sports Southeast/NBA League Pass/92.9 FM ESPN Memphis
MEMPHIS: Dillon Brooks (Out, ankle), Yves Pons (Questionable, thigh)
MINNESOTA: McKinley Wright IV (Out, arm)
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS:
MEMPHIS: Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, Ziaire Williams, Jaren Jackson Jr., Steven Adams
MINNESOTA: Patrick Beverley, D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Jarred Vanderbilt, Karl-Anthony Towns
After a needed All-Star Break that saw the team play 60 games prior to it, the Memphis Grizzlies are back in action tonight. It will be a 22-game sprint to the finish line, as Memphis finds themselves in favorable position to not only host a first round series but perhaps become the #2 seed in the Western Conference. The Grizzlies are 4 games ahead of the Utah Jazz for the #3 seed that they currently reside in, 5.5 games ahead of the Dallas Mavericks for the 5 seed, and the Golden State Warriors (without Draymond Green) have been flailing of late, falling to only 1.5 games ahead of the Grizzlies for #2. While the Phoenix Suns will miss Chris Paul (out for 6-8 weeks due to a thumb injury), their 6.5 game lead over Golden State (and therefore 8 game lead over Memphis) is likely safe.
But the Grizzlies could catch the Warriors in theory, meaning they could go from a projected 1st round matchup with the defending NBA MVP (who is statistically better this season than he was last) in Nikola Jokic to a potential showdown with tonight’s opponent, the Minnesota Timberwolves, assuming they defeat whoever is the #8 seed (probably one of the Los Angeles teams) in the Memphis Grizzlies Memorial Play-In Tournament. While that sounds like a better match-up for Memphis on paper, to overlook these Timberwolves would be a mistake. While the Grizzlies are 2-1 on the season against Minnesota, one of those wins was in a tough overtime affair and their loss to the Timberwolves - in Target Center - was one of the worst of the season, a 138-95 thrashing.
A win solidifies the Timberwolves even further in the postseason conversation as they try to avoid the play-in themselves by catching the Nuggets. Minnesota will be hungry, and ready.
Here’s how Memphis can match that energy.
Get Ja Morant Going
The last time these two teams met, Memphis got a performance from Ja Morant that (despite the Grizzlies win) he would probably like to forget as a scorer. While Morant produced in other areas - he was close to a triple-double - he shot a poor 5-16 from the field and an even worse 0-7 from three. Minnesota prioritized pressuring Ja, forcing him to make early decisions out of his usual rhythm. Morant had 9 assists, so they were not completely successful. But Ja’s rough efficiency scoring (a 6-7 free throw shooting night saved him some) and his 4 turnovers in the game suggest that they did make Morant uncomfortable enough to limit his All-NBA level on contributions in this game.
The last time the Grizzlies lost to Minnesota, that blowout defeat? Ja was even worse - 11 points, 5 assists, 3 turnovers in 27 minutes of play. Between Patrick Beverley’s individual effort defensively and the Timberwolves scheme, they’ve been able to create problems for Ja at times this season (in fairness, Morant went off in the Grizzlies overtime victory against Minnesota). But even then, Morant shot 10-24 and used the free throw line (10-12) to supplement his 33 points of scoring. Ja must be prioritized to get going early, using his athleticism to get to the rim while also being gives opportunities to score the ball from different areas of the floor both on and off the ball.
You know the Timberwolves are going to push the pace defensively against Morant. Memphis has had time to be ready for those looks. The counterpunch needs to be stronger than it has been across three games against Minnesota if Memphis hopes to win its first game at Target Center this season.
Disrupt two-thirds of the Minnesota triumvirate
The last game that the Minnesota Timberwolves played was a fascinating look in to a possible path to consistently limiting their success offensively...although this is of course an idea that is easier said than executed. The Toronto Raptors got absolutely cooked by Karl-Anthony Towns - 24 points on 14 shots, 11 rebounds, 3 steals, 3 assists, 2 made threes on 3 attempts...he played about as efficient a game as you can on relatively low volume. This game, despite KAT’s great showing, was a 103-91 defeat for Minnesota. The reason? His two fellow stars on the Timberwolves - D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards - shot a putrid 2-19 combined and (this is true) did not make a single 2 point field goal.
That is out of character for the games of both Russell and Edwards. They will not be that bad over the long haul. But the point is, even if one of the three (in this case Towns) plays to their elite capabilities, forcing the other two in to tough spots makes things a heck of a lot easier. Minnesota is limited in terms of offensive fire power beyond Towns/Edwards/Russell. If you can prioritize disrupting their rhythm on the perimeter in particular, it enables you to have success in passing lanes and transition - where Memphis thrives.
Steven Adams should be told that he has Karl-Anthony Towns all night to himself. Maybe this strategy leads to an explosive KAT night. But allowing Jaren Jackson Jr. to use his defensive versatility to limit the output of Edwards and Russell could make all the difference.
The Grizzlies are only 2.5 point favorites as of this writing, and that makes complete sense. Minnesota is an underrated NBA surprise in their own right, and they figure to see this as an opportunity to start their playoff pursuit on the right foot.
Memphis will see it as that as well, however. Expect a strong showing on the road from Desmond Bane as the Wolves prioritize slowing Morant and the great Grizzlies bench looking rested and ready to help Memphis get a needed victory on the road against a solid Minnesota team.
Memphis 112, Minnesota 109