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Defending D’Angelo Russell

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

Heading into the playoff matchup between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Minnesota Timberwolves, a lot of eyes were on D’Angelo Russell. Russell killed the Grizzlies in the regular season, averaging 31 points and 6.8 assists on 55.8% shooting and 46.3% from beyond the arc. Russell’s regular season success against the Grizzlies was highlighted in the season series finale where he scored 23 4th quarter points en route to a Timberwolves win.

Russell has yet to find the same success in the two postseason games against Memphis. In the series, Russell has shot just 5-22 from the field (22.7%) and 3-10 from beyond the arc. Russell has missed some shots he normally makes, but it’s been a total team effort by the Grizzlies to limit those opportunities and to make things difficult for Russell.

In Game One, Russell tried to attack the Grizzlies with his mid-range game. The Grizzlies responded well by having the on ball defender stay in front of Russell, and Russell saw 2-3 bodies cut off his path.

Russell does a good job using the Beasley screen to get past Desmond Bane. Jaren Jackson Jr. steps up which allows Bane to get back in front of Russell has he goes for the mid-range jumper since the lay up is no longer an option. Brandon Clarke helps off Naz Reid, while Tyus Jones helps off Taurean Prince in case Russell tries to drop the pass off to Vanderbilt under the basket. Both Bane and Clarke contest the shot, while JJJ is able to step back and box out for the rebound.

Russell was a bit of a victim of Chris Finch’s rotation in that clip as none of Vanderbilt, Prince, or Reid scare the Grizzlies. Ziaire Williams does a good job staying with Malik Beasley while also being able to help if Russell passed off the shot.

The Grizzlies were able to still take advantage of the Timberwolves personnel, even with both Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards on the floor. In this clip, Russell once again is able to beat Bane off the dribble through the Vanderbilt screen, but again JJJ is there to take away the rim. Vanderbilt cuts to the basket, but there’s no easy passing lane for Russell to dish him the ball, and Ja Morant helps off Patrick Beverley to help assist at the rim if needed. This forces Russell to take a step back, allowing Bane to get back in front of him and force the contested fadeaway jumper.

Russell was able to hurt the Grizzlies passing the ball in Game One, dishing out 9 assists in the Timberwolves win. Russell benefited from the Wolves hot shooting in Game One, but he also made a few good reads to set up teammates for open looks. In the clip below he doesn’t force a layup or mid-range shot attempt after Ziaire Williams stays with him through the KAT screen. Instead he forces Kyle Anderson to commit to the help, leaving Jaden McDaniels wide open for a triple. Russell was able to find more success in the minutes Jaren Jackson Jr. wasn’t on the court to protect the rim.

Russell settled for a ton of 3-point attempts in Game Two on Tuesday. After going 1-3 from deep in Game One, Russell went 2-7 in Game Two, with one of those makes being a ridiculous fadeaway trying to draw a foul. Russell actually had plenty of good looks in Game Two, but the Grizzlies were aggressive in their close outs to make it a little more difficult for Russell who simply missed shots he would normally make.

Ja Morant does a good job recovering from his help position to contest Russell’s shot in the corner and not giving him any driving angles to try and pursue and forcing the jumper. Where the Grizzlies were really impressive in Game Two, though, was not even letting Russell get up shots. After 3 shot attempts in the first 5 minutes of the game, Russell didn’t get up another shot attempt until the opening minutes of the 3rd quarter, when the Grizzlies lead was in double digits. The Grizzlies lead, along with their defensive pressure, forced Russell to settle for 3-point attempts as Memphis put the game away.

The Grizzlies also did a good job of forcing Russell to go right, instead of left with his dominant hand. Since he isn’t as great attacking the basket going right, he settled for pull up jump shots like the clip above, with Desmond Bane doing a great job of staying in front of the Timberwolves guard. It’s ultimately a decent look for Russell, but one the Grizzlies will live with at that point in the game especially with the way he had been shooting the ball.

The Grizzlies also did a better job of limiting Russell’s playmaking chops, with the Timberwolves role players also coming back down to Earth a little bit. After shooting 5-6 and 2-3 from deep in Game One, Jaden McDaniels shot 1-7 and 0-4 from deep in Game Two.

The clip above is a pretty simple play. Russell gets the switch with Xavier Tillman guarding him, and Tyus Jones chasing Naz Reid into the paint. Kyle Anderson helps off of Jordan McLaughlin to protect the rim, with Ja floating to help intercept a pass to Reid or McLaughlin but winds up leaving McDaniels open for the wide open triple. McDaniels, like other Timberwolves role players, missed looks that they made in Game One.


As mentioned earlier, it’s been a total team effort in limiting D’Angelo Russell’s impact. No matter who is defending him, he just hasn’t been nearly as effective as he was in the regular season. Being defended by Dillon Brooks, Russell is 2-5, including 1-2 from deep, but Brooks has deterred a lot of Russell shots by his ability to fight through screens and stay in front of Russell. Bane hasn’t been as successful as Brooks fighting through screens, but he’s recovered nicely. In the two games, Russell is 0-7 with Bane as the primary defender. Russell is 2-5 with JJJ as the primary defender, but as seen in multiple of the clips provided, JJJ’s help defense protecting the rim has arguably been the biggest factor in Russell’s struggles.

Russell getting going offensively will likely be key to the Timberwolves ability to pull off the series upset against the Grizzlies. He’s unlikely to shoot 22.7% the entire series, but the Grizzlies will need to keep up their defensive intensity to continue to make things difficult for Russell. The Timberwolves, despite the inconsistencies from their role players, are tough to beat if all 3 of D-Lo, Ant and KAT are rolling offensively. Keeping Russell at bay could be the key to the Grizzlies taking the series against the Timberwolves.

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