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Three teachable moments in Memphis

The Grizzlies are still accumulating data - even when the stakes are high.

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NBA: Playoffs-Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Christine Tannous-USA TODAY Sports

The book appears to be out on the Memphis Grizzlies.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The Minnesota Timberwolves have a good head coach in Chris Finch, and he and his staff have found ways to make the Grizzlies pay for being...predictable. No player is perfect - especially young ones - and given the structure of postseason play, with plenty of time to gameplan for your opponent, all cracks in your game can be put on display.

This is even true of the three best Grizzlies this season - Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Desmond Bane. It’s fitting that these three are also three of the younger players on the Memphis roster. We forget all too easily that despite this team’s NBA Finals contender status, they’re still so very young. They have experience in the postseason, but not much. And all three of them (for the next month or two at least) are still on their rookie contracts. For a team that finished with the #2 seed in the Western Conference to have their three best players all be on rookie deals is a dramatic reminder of the future...

But that won’t turn this series around in the present.

In the NBA Playoffs, stars make the difference. Role players matter, and coaching is important. But it’s the top flight names that make the key plays in the most meaningful moments. For the Timberwolves, Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns stepped up to that call better than the three young Grizzlies kings did. But that can change in one game. The tide can turn quite quickly...if the data that was accumulated in Game One can be processed and addressed in Game Two.

Ja Morant: Find the Finesse

NBA: Playoffs-Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Christine Tannous-USA TODAY Sports

Ja Morant was a blunt force weapon in Game One. He got to the free throw line 20 times - no other player got to the charity stripe more than 10 times - and he paid the price at times for his drives to the lane. Minnesota pretty clearly was committed to not allowing Morant to get clean finishes at the basket - it was the 2022 version of “making him earn the points”, with a bit less violence than the 1990’s probably would’ve enjoyed. That doesn’t mean that Ja didn’t hit the deck consistently, though. Even on plays where the defense on Ja was deemed “clean”, he was falling to the floor.

No complaints on no foul fall - again, Morant attempted 20 free throws. He got a good whistle. The point has more to do with how, from this clip to multiple others, Ja was more interested in generating the penetration at the rim and trying to finish aggressively than trying to diversify his shot portfolio. He has these tools in his bag - especially the floater.

Yet if you watch him play against Minnesota, his focus was more about closing the space that existed between himself than the rim than playing within the room he had created, either with his handle or his elite athleticism in transition.

The audaciously violent way Ja Morant plays basketball is as beautiful as it is aggressive. He wanted to force Minnesota to collapse on him as he found teammates - and his 8 assists is evidence of that aspect of his game being in full effect on Saturday. But for the sake of his body and the flow of the Grizzlies offense, he must add a bit more variety to his in-game arsenal. He has shown time and again he has one of the best floaters in the NBA. It was only used off a rebound of a missed free throw - not as he came downhill to the paint. He is an improved three point shooter (34.4% this season is a career high), and yet only attempted two such shots in Game One. The time will come throughout this series where the extra pass gets him an open look at a three or a lane to a crowded paint area.

He needs to let it fly, either from beyond the arc or above the outreached hand of a Minnesota big as a floater. He’s more than capable. It’s about harnessing the emotion of the game and putting that energy in to the execution that has him as one of the top 5-10 players on the planet.

16 made free throws isn’t sustainable. Ja’s ability to get open looks is. Morant must mix up what he does with the space between the move and the hopeful make.

Jaren Jackson Jr. - Seek the next pass

NBA: Playoffs-Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Christine Tannous-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the recent Defensive Player of the Year finalist snub, Jaren Jackson Jr. is one of the very best defensive players in the National Basketball Association. His seven blocks against Minnesota in Game One in just 24 minutes of play is staggering. The rim protection of JJJ has evolved to a place where teams must locate where he is on the floor at all times. His presence looms large.

But offensively, his inability (or unwillingness?) to make the extra pass off of dribble drives or on three point looks is beginning to inhibit his ability to be that force of nature - especially when creating for himself off his handle. Two offensive fouls were called against Jaren on Saturday, and whether you want to argue with the refs or give Jackson Jr. a pass because he was trying to be active, the reality is every foul he takes on offense takes away his ability to be a terror defensively as he is capable of. Minnesota has Jaren scouted. They see that he is not a willing passer out of those looks, and the numbers back that up - he is in the 21st percentile per Cleaning the Glass among bigs in assist percentage. Only Ziaire Williams has a lower percentage than Jaren among consistent Grizzlies rotation players.

Jackson Jr. isn’t expected to be Nikola Jokic as a passer. But he does not make the extra pass consistently enough, taking the good shot of Jaren (he’s a threat off the dribble in mismatches, and is still seen as a three point weapon despite his 31.9% performance from beyond the arc this season) and making a great shot. Minnesota set up shop multiple times in front of a driving JJJ and drew charges twice. On neither occasion did Jaren try to dish out before the contact, or maneuver his body around to try to force the refs to call the blocking foul. And on four of Jaren’s five three point attempts the shot came with roughly 15-16 seconds left on the shot clock.

It all adds up to a young man forcing things. He is far too important to the defensive end of the floor to allow his offensive production to muck up those opportunities. Make the extra pass and letting the game come to him within the rhythm of the free flowing Grizzlies offense will make for an all-around better showing for the young unicorn of Memphis.

Desmond Bane: Get to the basket, then look up

NBA: Playoffs-Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Christine Tannous-USA TODAY Sports

Desmond Bane’s creativity off the dribble has been evident since his time at TCU. It is one of the reasons the Grizzlies saw Bane as such a valuable pick at #30 overall in the 2020 NBA Draft - many saw him as a four-year player whose peak was perhaps being a good three point shooter in the NBA, and not much more. Those people were wrong. From Summer League Point Guard to the de facto backup this season when Ja Morant would be out due to injury, Desmond Bane has shown that his offensive skill set has more layers than he was given credit for by most scouts...outside of the Memphis ones, clearly. Bane can make offense not only for himself, but others - his assist percentage (13.6% from 10.4%) and usage rate (21.8% from 13.7%) going up while his turnover rate went down (10.9% to 9.2%) per Cleaning the Glass from his rookie to sophomore seasons is further evidence of what the game on the floor tells us.

But in Game One, Bane was much more centered on working to generate his own scoring, and exerted most of that effort outside the paint. Desmond only took five of his 15 shots inside the paint, making three of them, whereas his other three makes were from beyond the arc (as you’d expect). Going 3-8 from beyond the arc is the norm for Bane...that isn’t the issue. The problem is that Desmond was not prioritizing getting at the paint consistently enough - and when he did, he wasn’t able to make easier/more efficient looks for his teammates. Bane logged one assist in 33 minutes of play. That’s not enough for a player that put in as much time this season as a lead facilitator...or that is capable of passes like this.

Whether it’s on Bane or within how scheme is being implemented, entrusting Desmond with more opportunity to create off the dribble will be valuable to keep the Grizzlies offense clicking. This makes Ja Morant a threat for lobs and backdoor cuts. It enables Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steven Adams to set screens from different spaces on the floor, and with varying angles as Bane tries to get downhill instead of flare screens or pin downs in the mid and long range area of the floor.

Desmond Bane is capable of more for the Memphis Grizzlies. He’s more than a three point threat, or simply a two dribble and pass kind of player. Whether it is him or Dillon Brooks with the advantageous D’Angelo Russell matchup, that type of work will force the Wolves to be more varied with how they try to close off the lane. They have to respect Bane as a shooter - but a fake on a close out and dribble penetration will lead to cleaner looks for both Desmond and the team at large.

Steven Adams must play better. The likes of Kyle Anderson and Brandon Clarke have to find ways to help slow the offensive onslaught of Karl-Anthony Towns. Reserves like De’Anthony Melton providing more scoring off the bench will make life easier. But in reality, the path to “fixing” what led to the issues Memphis faced in Game One starts with their three best players. Without improvements from them, the Grizzlies will be staring down a 0-2 series deficit on the way to Minnesota for games 3 and 4.

There’s a reason Memphis is still favored in the series. Adjustments always come between games 1 and 2. The Grizzlies are well-coached, and the lack of attention to detail and gameplan seems to have been addressed in practice, if you listen to media availabilities. But words must become action. And the Memphis Grizzlies are dependent on the actions of their three best to help lead the way back to an even playing field - and essentially a best of five series - coming out of Tuesday night.

They’ve been embracing teachable moments throughout the last two years together. Game Two against Minnesota is just another opportunity to learn and grow together.

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