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Big shifts for Steven Adams, Grizzlies

The Timberwolves found a way to make Steven Adams uncomfortable on defense. How should the Grizzlies adjust?

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Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies - Game One Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Steven Adams’ performance on Saturday was a big talking point and gripe for many around Memphis Grizzlies Twitter spheres, from fans and media alike. There are a lot of truths for Adams’ outlook for this series:

  • The center matchup with Karl-Anthony Towns is a bad one
  • Game 1 was his worst game in a Grizzly uniform
  • Taylor Jenkins needs to cut his minutes
  • He’s too important for the team’s system to be entirely removed from the rotation after one game

Adams finished with only 3 rebounds (1 offensive) and 3 assists in 24 minutes. The Timberwolves minimized his impact on the boards with their tenacity towards 50/50 balls. Where they really punished him was defensively.

Towns is a great player, and talents in his stratosphere are tough matchups for just about anyone. The case is even stronger for Steven Adams. The Grizzly big man doesn’t have the mobility to contain this level and combination of speed, strength, and shooting. According to the NBA’s matchup data, Towns shot 6-8 from the field with Adams as the primary defender. His perimeter firepower makes him a tricky guard, as he can pop off for an open jumper or generate momentum downhill.

Towns beat Adams with those things for sure, but a lot of it came from a force standpoint, something that was a bit surprising and discouraging from the veteran big man.

Adams tries to force Towns to drive towards his off hand, which is fine in most cases. However, it gives Towns more spots to chose from in his path to the basket, where he just beats his defenders in a balance of finesse and physicality. The play here would’ve been opening up the corner and baseline, where a Jackson shift could’ve put Towns in a less favorable position with fewer angles for him to attack.

The Timberwolves also placed Adams in tricky situations by spreading him out in the pick-and-roll with Towns popping out to the 3-point line. When Adams attempts to recover on the pass, Towns catches him flat-footed or scrambling, opening up a driving lane straight to the basket. He just doesn’t have the foot speed to keep up with that many perimeter switches.

The Grizzlies pick-and-roll coverages were shredded in the Anthony Edwards and Towns pick-and-rolls. Rashad Phillips broke down the shaky spots for Adams in these situations in a great Twitter thread. Edwards made 3 of his 4 shots with Adams as the primary defender — NBA’s matchup data says 4-5, but one of those attempts should’ve gone towards De’Anthony Melton.

Whenever Adams switches off screens, he’s typically in a soft drop, since he’ll get blown past if he defended up much higher. Edwards is in an advantageous situation, as he has a runway to power to the rim, but he’s just as comfortable creating off the dribble — and Saturday was a damn masterclass in the shot-creation department. Giving him too much room to find his shot is a bold strategy, one the Grizzlies shouldn’t lean on going forward in this series.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies - Game One Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

So where to adjust?

The most conventional move is to cut Steven Adams’ minutes — and we’ll get into that one. Let’s focus on the coverage standpoints first.

The easiest decision from a coverage perspective would be to have Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steven Adams switch defensive assignments — Jackson on Towns, Adams on Vanderbilt. This swap would have Jackson roaming the perimeter for contests and switches, while Adams is playing center field closer to the basket.

It has both benefits and downsides.

The Grizzlies are in more of a prime position to defend and switch off pick-and-rolls. Jaren Jackson is a shiftier defender, a big man that can be a nightmare off switches. He has the mobility to stick with perimeter players beyond the 3-point line, and the size to take away looks from them, which could force creators like Edwards and Russell off their rhythm. For Adams, he wouldn’t be asked to defend as much of the floor, and he could serve as more of a quarterback of the defense and call out actions and changes in coverages. He could be in better position to help off drives, since Vanderbilt isn’t going to space the floor or anything. If they do try to go at Adams in pick-and-roll, they’d be doing so with Vanderbilt as the screener, and not Towns.

If the Timberwolves are that insistent on going at Adams defensively that they’re making Jarred Vanderbilt more of a focal point of the offense through screen-and-roll actions, that’s fine. The Timberwolves literally do not feature him — he’s in the 5th percentile among big men in usage rate, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s next to nothing! Letting Vanderbilt beat you is a more sound defensive strategy than having Towns capitalize on perimeter mismatches against your big man.

While this swap may bode well for perimeter defense, what does it do for paint defense? Jackson was a terror in this lingering help spot, swatting 7 shots — though in just 24 minutes of action due to foul trouble. Adams doesn’t provide that same level of rim protection, lacking the same length and vertical pop as his frontcourt mate. In addition, Jackson was caught in a tricky situation with his fouls. What would defending out in the perimeter do for him? Wouldn’t the Wolves just go at Jackson to see if he gets too handsy for fouls?

Those are some predicaments in a rather seamless adjustment going into Game 2.

The most popular decision is to cut Steven Adams’ minutes in favor of Brandon Clarke and (to a lesser extent) Kyle Anderson. That’s a very likely route Taylor Jenkins goes down. A lot of it though will fall on foul trouble. If it’s anything like Game 1, Jenkins will be forced to tweak his rotation to a point where this route may be one that’s delayed to the next game.

With Anderson and Clarke, there’s more defensive versatility that yields to more activity — and with that comes deflections, turnovers, and transition opportunities for cycles. Either of them can guard Towns in spots; Anderson is particular did a great job and poses challenges with his wingspan and his solid defensive foundation. One side effect of these lineups is a size disadvantage, as it gives them no true rim protector. Nonetheless, lineups with those 2 players outscored the Wolves by 9 points in roughly 9 and a half minutes. They should lean into this more, and perhaps run them two with Jackson at times too.

This direction also follows another coverage change, and that’s double-teaming Towns whenever he catches and dribbles in the post. It’s eerily similar to what the Clippers did to him in the play-in game, and the Grizzlies leaned into it.

Whenever that blitz happens, Towns is forced into frantic decisions that typically led to stops, usually in the form of cross-court passes.

And one compelling element of these coverages is that the Grizzlies invite that sort of pass as well. That sort of architecture and intention is designed for the post player to throw a pass that’s either erratic or telegraphed.

defense off the double

Off the double, Clarke and Jones are walling off the passes to Edwards and Russell, two of Towns’ most lethal options. Bane is closing off the paint, blocking out any path towards a backdoor pass. So his only option is Beverley, and Jones is able to telegraph it to intercept the pass for a transition bucket.

Towns is in the 37th percentile in Turnover Percentage (14.4%), per Cleaning the Glass. The Timberwolves were in the bottom-10 this season in turnovers per game (14.3), and the Grizzlies led the league in steals per game (9.8). If the Grizzlies could find opportunities like this to trap and force the Wolves into panic decisions, that’s an avenue to open up their offense through transition.

Regardless of who’s in and how they set up the rotation, the Memphis Grizzlies need to find a way to prevent another onslaught from the Minnesota Timberwolves, particularly All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns in this instance.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The big question for Steven Adams for game 2 will revolve around his playing time.

He probably does need to play less. Brandon Clarke should play more, as indicated through his play both in Game 1 and against Minnesota in the regular season. He provides a strong dose of defensive switch-ability and offensive pop that Adams lacks. You could even make an argument for Kyle Anderson needing more of those minutes as well.

Jaren Jackson staying out of foul trouble and taking enough minutes at the 5 should help as well.

Nonetheless, cutting Adams’ minutes too significantly may be an overreaction. He deserves the benefit of the doubt that Saturday was probably his worst game as a Grizzly. His impact is vital to the team’s system. He only trailed Dillon Brooks for best on-off differential on the team this regular season, as the Grizzlies were 5.1 points per 100 possessions better with Adams on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. His elite ability to gather offensive rebounds and to free his teammates up off screens are paramount for the Grizzlies’ halfcourt offense.

Even if they reduce Adams’ minutes from 24 to 20 or under, there’s time for him to make an impact in this series. He generated 18 points off 8 screen assists on Saturday, so he had that going for him — and for his beneficiaries. Let’s see if Adams can get going on the offensive glass.

Tweak the coverage to make Towns less accessible and more uncomfortable. Reduce the amount of time Adams has to roam on the perimeter. Give more time to Jaren Jackson and Brandon Clarke. Let Adams find his rhythm to put his stamp on the game.

In terms of the Grizzlies frontcourt, these elements should be priorities in Game 2. If the Timberwolves continue to pick apart Adams to make him a non-factor on the court, Taylor Jenkins may be forced to make drastic changes.

But for now, let’s see how the adjustments play out. The NBA playoffs are a chess match, and this area right here is the biggest piece for the Memphis Grizzlies.

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