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NBA Playoffs Preview Guide: Memphis Grizzlies vs. Minnesota Timberwolves - Welcome To The Dark

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

WHO: #2 Memphis Grizzlies (56-26) vs. #7 Minnesota Timberwolves (46-36)

WHAT: 1st Round of the 2022 NBA Western Conference Playoffs

PLAYOFF SCHEDULE:

GAME ONE- Saturday, April 16th at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee (2:30 PM CT, ESPN)

GAME TWO- Tuesday, April 19th at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee (Time/TV TBD)

GAME THREE- Thursday, April 21st at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota (6:30 PM CT, TNT)

GAME FOUR- Saturday, April 23rd at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota (Time/TV TBD)

GAME FIVE*- Tuesday, April 26th at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee (Time/TV TBD)

GAME SIX*- Friday, April 29th at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota (Time/TV TBD)

GAME SEVEN*- Sunday, May 1st at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee (Time/TV TBD)

*= If Necessary

ALL GAMES WILL BE TELECAST LOCALLY IN THE MEMPHIS MARKET ON BALLY SPORTS SOUTHWEST AND BROADCAST ON THE RADIO ON 92.9 FM ESPN MEMPHIS

THE TALE OF THE TAPE (all stats provided by Cleaning the Glass):

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES: 4th in Offensive Efficiency (115.8 points per 100 possessions), 5th in Defensive Efficiency (109.6 points per 100 possessions), 4th in Efficiency Differential (+6.2), 22nd in Effective Field Goal Percentage (52.8%), 11th in Defensive eFG% (52.6%)

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP: Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr., Steven Adams

PROJECTED ROTATION PLAYERS: Tyus Jones, De’Anthony Melton, Brandon Clarke, Kyle Anderson, Ziaire Williams

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES: 7th in Offensive Efficiency (114.7 points per 100 possessions), 13th in Defensive Efficiency (111.6 points per 100 possessions), 10th in Efficiency Differential (+3.2), 11th in Effective Field Goal Percentage (54.3%), 17th in Defensive eFG% (53.8%)

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP: Patrick Beverley, D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Jarred Vanderbilt, Karl-Anthony Towns

PROJECTED ROTATION PLAYERS: Malik Beasley, Jaden McDaniels, Nas Reid, Jaylen Nowell


One of the greatest regular seasons in the history of the Memphis Grizzlies franchise has come to a close. Numerous records have been broken. Several players, as well as Head Coach Taylor Jenkins, are legitimate candidates for year-end NBA awards. The work that was done in darkness has led to some of the brightest lights the basketball world has to offer.

Welcome to the 2022 NBA Playoffs.

The first step on the journey that is this postseason for one of the NBA’s youngest teams is against a squad that likes to compare its hopeful ascent to what the Memphis Grizzlies have accomplished over the last three years. The Minnesota Timberwolves are indeed similar to Memphis in one key area - if you removed the team names and simply listed their accolades/production by the numbers this season, you’d likely take them more seriously. For the Grizzlies, the idea that they’re one of the biggest surprises in the NBA as the team with the Association’s best record doesn’t line up with the betting in Las Vegas when it comes to NBA Finals favorites.

Memphis fans, of course, disagree with the idea that the surprise of the Grizzlies limits their championship winning capabilities.

But if Memphis and their Grizzlies are used to anything, it is being seen as an underdog. Despite their elite numbers and smashing of team and NBA records in areas such as most wins by 25+ points (13) and individual successes like Ja Morant’s ability to score in the paint unlike any guard we’ve seen in some time...and maybe ever, the way the Timberwolves won their play-in game on Tuesday night has resonated with some in such a way, along with their own overachieving, that Minnesota has become a popular upset pick.

That’s a mistake.

For even though the Timberwolves have an impressive resume of their own - being top-10 in Efficiency Differential deserves praise - this Minnesota team has even less experience than the Grizzlies when it comes to recent postseason runs and success. Including the play-in tournament, Memphis has logged 8 games (3 play-in, 5 playoff) of postseason play in the Ja Morant/#GrzNxtGen Era. The Minnesota Timberwolves have logged 0. The Grizzlies have had a chance to be a part of playoff basketball and the intensity that comes with it. The Timberwolves have not - at least not with this core of players. And even with a veteran like Patrick Beverley helping these young dogs become wolves, the scar tissue that Memphis has built up the last two years with regard to the losses in the Bubble Play-In and the 1st round last season provide a team with superior overall talent an additional edge that the Grizzlies, given their age, rarely have.

Experience.

Some keys to the series for Memphis.

Make Ja Morant shine

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Memphis Grizzlies Christine Tannous-USA TODAY Sports

One of the 10 best players in the NBA this season (he will be at worst 2nd Team All-NBA) being prioritized sounds like a no brainer. But this isn’t lazy writing - it is an acknowledgement of what the Timberwolves have done best in terms of the 2-2 regular season split that Minnesota earned against this 56-26 Memphis squad. Per basketball-reference.com, among teams Morant played at least three times this season for the sake of a larger sample size (so choosing from 7 squads) Ja only has a negative +/- rating against two of them - the Golden State Warriors (-4.3) and...

You guessed it. The Minnesota Timberwolves (-8.3 in 4 games played).

There are reasons for this. Morant has to deal with blitzing and attacking defensive pressure from Chris Finch’s Wolves that he normally doesn’t see. Despite his current overrated productivity on the floor, Patrick Beverley (who at best is Minnesota’s 4th best guard, and perhaps is their 5th best) is very astute at both the mental and physical side of basketball and has earned his reputation as a stout defender (Minnesota opponents score 6.2 points less per 100 possessions with Beverley on the floor than when he is off). Then there is Anthony Edwards, who while he cannot do it for entire stretches of games because of his offensive importance to Minnesota can use his size and length to disrupt Ja’s lanes to the basket and lines of sight while not giving up athleticism.

The Timberwolves have a lot they can throw at Ja.

The task for the Grizzlies and the staff of Memphis Head Coach Taylor Jenkins is finding ways to get Morant in motion. Minnesota defends the three ball relatively well (teams only shot 35.5% from beyond the arc against the Wolves this season) they aren’t particularly strong defending the paint (opponents made 66.1% of their attempts at the rim, good for 18th in the NBA). Morant’s strength is getting to the rim, so finding ways within scheme that the Grizzlies can get Ja there will be vital. It goes beyond just playing in transition - which Memphis is elite at, and can still happen in the postseason. When in half court sets the Grizzlies have to get Morant to the basket both on and off the ball.

The elite passing (a career year in assists) and screening (led the NBA in screen assists as well) of Steven Adams could come in to play here. Throughout the season we’ve seen Adams facilitate offense at the elbow for the Grizzlies, doing a Marc Gasol circa 2015 impression in passes off of cuts to Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, and others. It’s time for Ja to get in on that fun. Make multiple defenders run off various screens as Morant attacks the basket without the ball in his hands, in addition to base pick and roll option sets where Ja is the main dribble penetrator/facilitator of offense.

The Timberwolves have been successful making Morant less efficient, and effective, so far this season. For the Grizzlies to win this series convincingly that will need to change. Otherwise, the series split in the season will reflect a game 6 or 7 for Memphis against a solid 7 seed opponent.

Make your depth matter

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

One of the very clear strengths the Memphis Grizzlies have in this series is they are a much deeper team than the Minnesota Timberwolves. Among the best 6-7 players for the Wolves the numbers and your eyes tell you that they can hang with just about anyone when playing their best. But the dropoff from those 7 - the five projected Wolves starters, Jaden McDaniels, and Malik Beasley - is staggering. Of the lineups the Wolves have used this season that hold a positive net rating and have played at least 100 possessions together, all of them involve some combination of those 7. Jarred Vanderbilt is a tremendous rebounder for Minnesota and can play a factor on the boards and defensively, but he is so limited offensively (14% three point shooter, 11.9% usage rate) his impact is not as high as one would suspect.

For Memphis? The number is 9 - the five projected starters, plus Tyus Jones, De’Anthony Melton, Ziaire Williams, and Kyle Anderson. This doesn’t include Brandon Clarke, who despite being an anomaly in this particular statistical exercise (the lineup featuring him over 100 possessions was a drastic negative, but included John Konchar, who doesn’t figure to be in the postseason rotational mix barring injury) is overall a +6.7 on the season when on the floor for the Grizzlies.

Memphis is legitimately 10 deep. Minnesota is 7, at best some combination of 8 or 9 if you include Vanderbilt and a hot performing Taurean Prince or Jaylen Nowell, deep.

But common knowledge suggests more often than not rotations shrink in the playoffs. So how can the Grizzlies take advantage?

It’s like a pitcher in baseball. You have multiple pitches you can use, and different sequences that they can be utilized in. Same concept with the depth of Memphis. Perhaps you play every first half with the 10 man rotation from the end of the season - Morant/Bane/Brooks/Jackson Jr./Adams as starters, Jones/Melton/Williams/Anderson/Clarke as the reserves, with staggered minutes as Bane and Jackson Jr. get first rest and return when Ja goes to the bench. But come the 2nd half - after halftime adjustments - you throw your best 8 that night, depending on what Minnesota wants to do, at the Timberwolves. Maybe the starters plus Williams/Anderson/Clarke make sense to go big. Perhaps in the 2nd half you replace Adams with Clarke and go Tyus/Melton/Williams or Anderson to be more “small”. Or you experiment with the theoretical “death lineup” of Morant, Bane, Brooks, Clarke, and Jackson Jr. with a bench rotation of Jones, Melton, and Anderson and eat worlds defensively and in transition.

The possibilities are nearly endless. And that last hypothetical - the “death lineup” - has rarely played together this season due to various injuries. It also allows for you to simply ride the “hot hand” - on a night where De’Anthony Melton is feeling it from three, let him get extended run.

Memphis has more room for counters and adjustments than Minnesota does. That’s one of the benefits of being the deeper team, even in the playoffs.

The Prediction

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves have had a great season, and have plenty to celebrate. The seem to have found the right coach for the future, the right star to lead the way in Anthony Edwards, and a solid cast around him to make them compete above what they should be able to do. If that sounds familiar, it is because it is exactly what has been said about the Memphis Grizzlies the last two years while on their own play-in journey. The parallels are fair to that point.

But that is where they should stop.

One player, Patrick Beverley, is credited with doing a majority of the work turning the Timberwolves culture around in one year. In Memphis, it has been built over the last three seasons. For Minnesota, they have found success against the Grizzlies offensively in ways they haven’t had against other teams this season, especially from players like D’Angelo Russell, who boasts a 140 offensive rating against Memphis this season. But that success came against a back court without their best perimeter defender - it is unlikely that with Dillon Brooks back in the mix those scores come quite as easily.

The Timberwolves struggle with turning over the ball (21st in the NBA) and Memphis thrives off turnovers (2nd in points added through transition). Minnesota is a middle of the pack team when it comes to rebounding (16th) and the Grizzlies are elite (1st in total rebounds and offensive rebound, 8th in defensive rebounds). They attack all of these areas with a roster that is deeper 1-10 and beyond than what Minnesota can realistically throw at Memphis.

There’s a reason the Grizzlies won 56 games, 20 of them without Ja Morant. They have an awesome team that has been built over the last three seasons. Minnesota is not as far along in their journey.

The last two years the Memphis Grizzlies have earned postseason scar tissue in early departures. This time, it is the Timberwolves turn.

Memphis Grizzlies win the series in 5 games.

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