WHAT: 2022 NBA Playoffs - Western Conference 1st Round Game One
WHEN: 2:30 PM CT
WHERE: FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee
HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN: ESPN/Bally Sports Southeast/92.9 FM ESPN Memphis
BETTING INFORMATION (per DraftKings): Memphis (-6.5), Over/Under 236
MEMPHIS: Killian Tillie (Out, back)
MINNESOTA: Taurean Prince (Questionable, knee)
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS:
MEMPHIS: Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr., Steven Adams
MINNESOTA: Patrick Beverley, D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Jarred Vanderbilt, Karl-Anthony Towns
The young, audacious Memphis Grizzlies aren’t a secret anymore.
If the media hits that kept coming on Friday are any indication (including our own series preview, which you can check out here in case you missed it) Memphis is the darling of the NBA world entering a weekend filled with playoff basketball. From Slam Online to Zach freaking Randolph in the Players’ Tribune, the good news that is the arrival of Ja Morant and his crew to the national stage as a favorite in the first round for the first time is being trumpeted here, there, and everywhere. No more complaining about not getting attention, or the eyes of the experts and talking heads not being where they SHOULD be. For many fans of basketball, the most important place to be watching on Saturday afternoon is FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee.
That of course is because of the Memphis Grizzlies. But, of course, they are not alone.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have become a feel good story of their own. A team in the NBA that has struggled over most of the last two decades - this appearance in the playoffs is the second for Minnesota since 2004 and the first since 2018 - the Timberwolves celebrated like they “haven’t been there before” after beating the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night in their Play-In Game because...well...they mostly haven’t been there before. And that is not a knock - celebrating an accomplishment is well worth while, especially if it is a long time coming for a franchise and fan base that loves basketball and is hungry for success.
The prize for the Timberwolves? A date over the next week or two with the Memphis Grizzlies, the second best team by record in the NBA this season. But don’t sleep on Minnesota’s ability to disrupt the best player for the Memphis Grizzlies in Ja Morant, or get red-hot offensively. We’ve seen both scenarios play out already this season as the teams split their series 2-2. While Memphis is rightfully favored according to DraftKings, if they do not play up to their standard the Timberwolves are more than capable of raining on the Grizzlies parade.
How can the bears of Beale Street end Game One up one? Keys to the contest.
Find the weak links
The Minnesota Timberwolves have several talented players on their roster. The “big three” of Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, and D’Angelo Russell get their attention, and rightfully so. But there are other Minnesota players that make impacts on games. Jarred Vanderbilt is a stout creator of turnovers and an above average rebounder. Patrick Beverley also wreaks havoc on offensive players and is the spirit animal for these Minnesota Timberwolves. Jaden McDaniels is a versatile frontcourt player that has length to block opposing shot opportunities from both the “3” and “4” positions. And Malik Beasley is a three point flame thrower who can get hot fairly quickly.
Even if Taurean Prince - another malleable positionally 3 and D threat - misses this contest, the likes of Jaylen Nowell (3 point threat) and Naz Reid (rebounding, defense against more traditional bigs) all can make life difficult for the Grizzlies in specific ways.
But they also all have weaknesses in their games. And those weaknesses can be exploited. Beasley is not the defender that Beverley is, and Beverley is nowhere near the offensive weapon Beasley is. Vanderbilt (10.9%), McDaniels (15.3%), and Beverley (16.1%) are comparatively non-factors in terms of usage rate and offensive sets. Vanderbilt’s usage is lower than that of one STEVEN ADAMS (12%). That is IMPRESSIVE! And Taurean Prince, while having a very strong offensive season, is strong from the corner three (44%) but not from elsewhere beyond the arc (32%).
All players have their flaws, of course. Memphis’ role players struggle in various ways, and Minnesota will try to exploit those as well. But the Grizzlies have valuable experience in postseason preparation that the Timberwolves do not possess. They are more familiar with the series structure, and the film/gameplanning that goes along with it. This should benefit the Grizzlies as they try to limit what these glue guys for Minnesota do well, understanding that at least two of their “big three” figure to shine.
Steven Adams defending Jarred Vanderbilt, an offensive non-factor, so he can help off with dribble penetration from all sides of the floor. Taking advantage of whichever of the Grizzlies perimeter players is being defended by D’Angelo Russell now that Dillon Brooks is back in the fold and all three of him, Desmond Bane, and Ja Morant can create off the dribble. Attacking the lanky, but undersized in terms of strength, Jaden McDaniels and forcing the Wolves defense out of position on rotations. The Grizzlies coaching staff surely knows the reality here - The Minnesota role players have spirit, but exploitable flaws. That can be exploited.
Speaking of advantages - what’s better than a “Big Three”?
Unleash the new “Core Four”
During the last era of Grizzlies basketball, “Grit and Grind” was paced by the “Core Four” of Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol. Those players helped guide the Grizzlies to unfathomable heights at the time like the Western Conference Finals in 2013 and helped forge a new generation of Grizzlies fans.
Memphis had to wait (checks calendar) just three years for a new Core Four to form. That’s cool.
It’s not to say that Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, and Jaren Jackson Jr. are at the level of these Grizzlies legends already. Last season, in the NBA Playoff series against the Utah Jazz, Brooks and Morant were by themselves in this role - Jackson Jr. was still returning from his meniscus injury, and because of the presence of Grayson Allen Desmond Bane was not featured as he is now. And of course the current Grizzlies quartet possesses a different set of skills than the first “Core Four”. Allen was limited in terms of his offensive game - none of the modern Grizzlies are, for example.
But the point is, as the first “Core Four” was the focus of the success of the Grit and Grind Era, so too must this foursome be in the here and now.
Morant played 41 minutes per game in the Jazz series last season. Brooks logged 35 minutes per game. Those two were undisputedly the best players for the Memphis in that series. That performance has to be repeated, while adding 34-ish minutes and 36-ish minutes to the loads of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane, respectively. There are 240 minutes to distribute in an NBA game in terms of rotation - assuming Morant gets 40, Brooks and Bane get 36, and Jackson Jr. gets 34 (so foul trouble is out of the picture), there are 96 minutes left to distribute between 5 or 6 players.
Find fits by matchup. Give role players a chance to earn extended run. he Grizzlies have depth to spare - there’s room for flexibility. But there are four dudes that will lead the way if the Grizzlies want to start their playoff journey off with a W. Let them feed. They must get run, and be the priority, and at no point should all of them be on the bench. At least one must be on the floor at all times - and preferably two.
The Grizzlies are listed as 6.5 point favorites entering game one, and to be honest, that feels pretty spot on. When Memphis is on their game, even if Minnesota plays well the Grizzlies should be a few possessions better than the Timberwolves. But there are reasons to be cautious - the Grizzlies have played one game as a total unit in a week, a bludgeoning of the newly crowned 8 seed New Orleans Pelicans last Saturday. Minnesota has been in playoff mode most recently. How Taylor Jenkins handled this layoff looms large.
Memphis in theory is as healthy as they have been all season long. Minnesota, while Taurean Prince is banged up, is not far behind. The key will be which team rides the wave of emotion that comes with game one the best and sticks to their game plan most effectively.
One of these two teams has won a game one recently. It isn’t Minnesota. Trust your eyes, the numbers, the experience factor, and the Vegas money. Whether this becomes a competitive series or not, Memphis should win at home to open the playoff race. And since great teams always cover, and both the Grizzlies (3rd in the NBA in Pace, 1st in points in the paint) and the Timberwolves (1st, and also 1st in three point shots attempted) love to play with offensive fire...
Memphis 125, Minnesota 116