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The Memphis Grizzlies are winning the chess match

Memphis’ game 2 counter-punch could prove to be fatal.

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

Anyone who claims that the NBA is a star-driven league is correct. But anyone who claims that coaching doesn’t matter because the NBA is a star-driven league has obviously never appreciated the coaching chess match of an NBA playoff series.

When it comes to the gamesmanship between Taylor Jenkins and Chris Finch, Finch and his Timberwolves won the first battle in game one of the seven-game war. For as impactful as Steven Adams was during the regular season, he was an undeniable liability that the Wolves constantly exploited defensively.

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

I would say that the Wolves practically played him off the court, but that really wouldn’t be accurate. Jaren Jackson’s foul trouble forced him to play an agonizing 24 minutes in the role of Memphis’ sacrificial lamb to Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards. He was a -13 in a game that the Grizzlies lost by 13. That is mid, as the kids say.

Of course, Finch and the Wolves were smart to target Adams. Playing him off the court would, in theory, be an advantage for Minnesota because it would help mitigate Memphis’ rebounding advantage. Minnesota is also a nightmare matchup of Lovecraftian proportions for him because there’s no place for him to hide.

Many traditional bigs who are solid rim protectors like Adams will be targeted by explosive guards in pick-and-rolls during the playoffs; that’s nothing new, and it’s usually survivable. Yet when that same traditional big is being targeted in pick-and-rolls while also being totally incapable of defending his primary matchup (Towns), he becomes a deadweight that his team can no longer carry.

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

This matchup is so bad for Adams that he can’t even thrive in the areas in which he almost always does. By having to guard Towns on the perimeter, he was constantly forced out of position for prime offensive rebounding opportunities. His greatest offensive value to the Grizzlies is giving them extra possessions; if he can’t do that, then he’s a liability on that end.

To be sure, the Wolves have succeeded in their series game-plan of negating Steven Adams. Taylor Jenkins conceded this reality when he only played him three minutes in game two. There will be a place for him to contribute later on in the playoffs, but it won’t be in this series.

The irony of this, however, is that Minnesota’s initial success may end up costing them the series. The Wolves got what they wanted, but they may later wish that they hadn’t.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 24 hours, you’re already aware that the Grizzlies demolished the Wolves 124-96 in Game 2. And while there are other factors in how they flipped the script (simply shooting better, for one), the most significant was their switching scheme on defense practically turned the water off on Minnesota’s offense.

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

Like most NBA teams, the Grizzlies favor drop coverage on defense, especially with Steven Adams. But with the sudden re-emergence of Xavier Tillman and an increased role for Brandon Clarke, the Grizzlies were able to switch everything defensively. The results were eye-opening: The Grizzlies held the Wolves, the highest scoring team in the NBA, to one of their 10 lowest scoring outputs of the season. The Wolves also shot 39% for the game and—more interestingly—35% on switches.

For the Grizzlies, this defensive strategy is clearly a recipe for success going forward. With Adams now likely out of the lineup, Memphis’ switching defense can use Minnesota’s greatest strengths against them.

The Wolves have a trio of incredibly talented scorers and tough shot-makers, so it only makes sense that they rely as heavily on isolation offense as they do (5th in the Association in attempts). However, isolation offense comes a bit easier in the regular season when you’re able to hunt a lumbering traditional big man in pick-and-rolls; it becomes quite the chore when you’re facing a team with five athletic defenders that can compete well in 1-on-1 situations. It doesn’t help that the Grizzlies often wreak historical havoc with their length and well-timed double teams whenever their opponent tries to take advantage of a switch.

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

To be fair, the Wolves do have a greater abundance of difficult shot-makers than the Grizzlies do. As we have already seen, that does have value in a postseason setting. But relying so heavily on tough shots against a great defensive team—one that has now found their most ideal scheme for this matchup— is probably not a recipe to win a round in the playoffs.

I do think that this adjustment by Jenkins to Memphis’ defensive scheme will ultimately win them the series, mainly because I really don’t know what Finch can do to counter it. The typical counter to a team playing smaller and switching everything is to punish them with size. Yet the Wolves lack credible bigs that they can play next to Karl-Anthony Towns. Naz Reid is more of a perimeter big that can’t punish smaller players, and Greg Monroe will be lucky if the Wolves don’t have to send him to an assisted living facility if he has to guard Ja Morant in pick-and-rolls for any extended time.

Regardless of what ends up happening in this series, the Grizzlies are a better team than the Timberwolves. They won 10 more games than them for a reason, and that reason was their depth. Minnesota may just not have the proper depth to give Memphis a counter-punch of their own.

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

Now there are adjustments that Minnesota can make to continue competing at a high level. I would expect Finch to try moving D’Angelo Russell off-the-ball as well as utilizing double screens and split screens to try to get him going. I also expect him to utilize the team’s best lineup of Russell-Beasley-Edwards-McDaniels-Towns, which has a net rating of +30 in just 6 minutes together for this series, much more throughout the series. You can’t underestimate homecourt advantage either, especially for team that shoots as well as the Wolves.

But as far as the series as whole is concerned, I can’t help but think of the 2018 NCAA National Championship between Alabama and Georgia. Georgia ended up losing that game because they executed their game-plan too well. They stacked the box every play and rendered Jalen Hurts completely ineffective. Yet they rendered him so ineffective that they forced Nick Saban to put in Tua Tagovaoila, for whom they weren’t prepared, and they were unable to properly adjust.

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

As Chris Finch said himself, Taylor Jenkins and the Memphis Grizzlies may have very well “lucked into something” with the adjustment they made in game 2. But Finch may end up needing some luck of his own if the Minnesota Timberwolves are to take back control of the series and ultimately win the chess match.

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