The Memphis Grizzlies pulled off one of the more improbable comebacks in their history on Thursday night, knocking off the Minnesota Timberwolves in a game where they trailed by as many as 26 points. The Game 3 win in their 2022 NBA Playoff First Round series got home court back for Memphis, and has set up for a fascinating Game 4 in Minnesota on Saturday night. Will the Timberwolves be able to bounce back? Or was this collapse/run by the Grizzlies something that a week from now we will be reflecting on as the first nail in the coffin of Minnesota’s season.
Don’t get too far ahead. To be up by double digits as consistently as the Timberwolves were in this game, they can surely bounce back and extend the series more in Game 4. But for now, the reality is that Memphis took Minnesota’s best shot, got back up, and delivered a mighty blow of their own.
But this breakdown of the most unique win in the history of the Memphis Grizzlies (I feel comfortable saying that - as Desmond Bane said last night, these guys were down 20+ TWICE and won the game) will begin late in the 3rd quarter. D’Angelo Russell makes a shot to give the Wolves a 83-62 lead with 1:05 to go in the frame. Memphis is about to go on a 21-0 run to tie this game.
How’d they get to that point, and eventually win?
Creating the best shot
During the 21-0 run in particular by Memphis, in about 5 minutes of game time from the end of the 3rd quarter to roughly 7:30 left in the 4th, the Grizzlies scored seven field goals, three of which came from beyond the arc. Six of the seven makes were assisted - and the assists came from four different players. Desmond Bane (2), Tyus Jones (2), Kyle Anderson, and Ja Morant all helped facilitate looks that led to much needed baskets for a Memphis team that had struggled mightily offensively throughout the evening. Part of the reason for that was strong, physical Timberwolves defense - they forced the Grizzlies in to 18 turnovers, several higher than their season average, and Morant himself had an uncharacteristic seven turnovers. The Wolves blitzed and forced bad passes throughout the game...that is, until the final quarter in particular.
The energy and execution picked up for the Grizzlies as it seemed to dip for the Wolves. Combining that with wonderful set plays on out of bounds passes from Taylor Jenkins, Memphis started the 4th quarter with Jaren Jackson Jr.’s only made three of the contest.
Jaren starts near the top of the key with both Desmond Bane and Ja Morant flanking him on either side. Brandon Clarke is apexing the low block and the elbow, with Tyus Jones - an above-average at worst, elite at best - facilitator of offense orchestrating things on the throw-in.
The play begins with a subtle screen for Bane from Jaren that would not make Steven Adams proud - Beasley gets over top of Jaren’s 6’11” frame rather easily. But that wasn’t the point - this was only the first action of the set, one to make the Wolves think that Bane was the focus and trigger for this particular play. Notice Taurean Prince’s eyes - he’s looking at the space between Jaren (his man) and Brandon Clarke, finding two threats in both Bane and Morant. He’s about to lose Jaren in all that room he’s allowed as the Wolves try to clog the paint, which in fairness to them had given them 20+ point leads twice in the game to that point.
Memphis ran variations of pindown screens throughout the game from several areas of the floor. Bane, who several times was the beneficiary in his own right both near the top of the key and in the corner closer to the baseline, is the screener for Jaren, forcing his man Beasley down in to a place where he cannot help on the open shooter. Prince, who remember was pre-occupied with Morant, now has multiple bodies between himself and his original assignment. No one is able to get out to Jackson without having to go around both Bane and Brandon Clarke, who thanks to his original positioning is another obstacle to work through.
That’s a lot of space for Jaren to step in to his shot and find rhythm. His technique on the shot has been debated over and over, and his roughly 32% conversion rate this season is less than ideal from a player you hope is your 2nd or 3rd option offensively for the Grizzlies offense. But when Jackson Jr. is able to set his feet and finish the release in a comfortable manner, he can be a major threat. Minnesota chose to take away the lane and make others for Memphis beat them from range. On this play and others in the final 13 minutes of the game, where the Grizzlies went on a 42-12 run, they finally made them pay - eight of Memphis’ final made baskets were outside the lane.
It wasn’t all creativity and ball movement with finesse. In spots, it was sheer power of will. Kyle Anderson displays that well here on a Tyus Jones three that brought Memphis within a possession.
TYUS JONES HITS THE THREE. 18-0 RUN FOR MEMPHIS pic.twitter.com/1crbVfc1bN— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) April 22, 2022
Kyle beats the younger, less strong Jaden McDaniels to the spot off the release of the free throw, and while McDaniels has inside position because of pre-shot alignment Anderson is in a better spot to react to where the ball goes. A veteran move, and that continued once McDaniels set himself defensively and didn’t allow a clean look at the basket for Kyle. Anderson turns out and finds an open Tyus Jones, who Patrick Beverley lost sight off coming down to “double team” Anderson.
“Double team” is put in quotes because...well...Pat Bev looked unsure of what to do. At no point were his hands up to try to deflect a pass, and once he sees Desmond Bane open in the corner he (understandably) sprints to close on him as opposed to Tyus Jones. Anthony Edwards doesn’t rotate over - probably because he’d been checking Morant much of the night, but perhaps there’s a miscommunication there - and Tyus get a clean look that he nails.
That play does not happen without great effort, which Memphis has stated time and again is the cornerstone of what they do. That transitioned to the defensive end as well.
Choosing who beats you
The Grizzlies were cooked throughout the game beyond the arc by the likes of D’Angelo Russell (4-8) and Anthony Edwards (4-9). But Memphis made conscious choices as to who to eliminate as a threat, and who to leave open if they must. This was executed best in the final 13 minutes of the contest, and showed both the attention to gameplan detail and elite effort thst have made the Grizzlies one of the NBA’s best teams this season.
During this run, Patrick Beverley was the clear choice. Three of Beverley’s five missed three point attempts came in the final frame - and the following play is a good example of how those looks came to be.
The Grizzlies borrowed from the gameplans of teams like the Los Angeles Clippers throughout Game 3 (and even before that in Game 2 of the series in particular), doubling on Karl-Anthony Towns and forcing him to facilitate offense. This didn’t hurt Minnesota in the first half - the energy of the crowd and the confidence of the Timberwolves helped get them cleaner looks, and even when Memphis defended well - an Anthony Edwards made three that Ja Morant got to contest comes to mind - Minnesota was hitting tough looks. Tip of the cap. But Patrick Beverley is not Anthony Edwards, and if the Grizzlies are going to pick their poison they will take the one that was traded for Eric Bledsoe and Jarrett Culver’s expiring contract.
The initial pass out of the double team from KAT goes to D’Angelo Russell, who perhaps in the past would’ve considered going at a Kyle Anderson or Steven Adams. But since Brandon Clarke has proven he’s capable of switchable defense on guards and wings, and since Russell knows the weak side defense of Memphis is Ja Morant against two perimeter players with Desmond Bane in the paint with both bigs occupied outside, he makes the correct pass to the better option. Two on one.
Ja Morant struggled at times in this game defensively. Minnesota often made him the focal point of their initial offensive sets, forcing Ja to try to stay on-ball and fight through screens to maintain position that he often lost. But in this setting, Morant makes one of his better team defensive scheme choices. He places himself between both Beverley and Anthony Edwards, apexing both offensive threats and enabling himself to be able to cut off Beverley if needed on a drive to the rim or close out on the more dangerous Edwards shooting a corner three. Of the three possibilities in this moment - a PatBev three, PatBev drive, or kick to Edwards in the corner, the three from Beverley is the preferred option for the Grizzlies defense.
Morant’s positioning allows for that to be Beverley’s read as well - Desmond Bane is actually leaving his spot on Jarred Vanderbilt as Jaren Jackson Jr. abandons the KAT double team, meaning the close out on Edwards would’ve likely arrived anyway.
Bane, as predicted, closes on Edwards. Morant was the closer on Beverley, but PatBev still gets an open look. Ja was there to take away an Edwards drive or help on a shot - Beverley was always the preferred shooter, and the Grizzlies play the odds and get the miss. Beverley is better than many give him credit for, but among the other Minnesota perimeter players and Karl-Anthony Towns, Beverley is easily the choice for a look if one must be given. Beverley missed, Jaren Jackson Jr. grabbed the rebound, and on the next possession Desmond Bane hit a 3 off a Ja Morant assist to extend the Memphis lead to five with 4:54 remaining in the game.
The Memphis Grizzlies were doubted throughout their comebacks in Game Three, by fan and media alike. Of course they were - in terms of win probability, the Minnesota Timberwolves were in the 90% range throughout the game and were at their peak right when the final thirteen minutes of the contest - where our analysis began - at 99.4%. And this was the second time the Timberwolves were up by more than 20 in the contest. Surely Memphis would not be able to fight back again.
And yet, the .6% pipe dream became reality.
Going in to this series, I wrote about how the Memphis Grizzlies had earned valuable scar tissue the last two seasons through their own playoff failures. This hardens you, makes you more weathered, but more willing to embrace the pain that comes from these tough moments. You know how it feels on the opposite end of the blowout, and what it takes in a raucous environment to be able to overcome. It isn’t a new experience - it’s the next one.
The Grizzlies Standard that has been preached during the Ja Morant Era has been competing as a unit, with the best thing for the team being what must come first - alongside elite defensive effort and execution. Memphis has strayed from that at times these last three years, but overall the build up of what it means to be a member of the Memphis Grizzlies is why the team pulled off what so many thought was not possible in Game Three. They believed in what they’ve built, and they fought like hell to represent that as well as they ever have to close a game they should have lost. In order to win an NBA Championship, more is required.
But for 13 minutes, the standard of the Memphis Grizzlies had never been stronger. And the NBA saw, once again, why this team is now and will remain a threat. Belief is a powerful thing. Memphis knows that well. And their Grizzlies were rewarded for their belief in themselves and what their Standard means to them.
It was just one 13 minute stretch. One game. Game Four will likely be a fight once again and could even the series from a talented Minnesota team. But come what may, Memphis’ toughness, talent, tenacity, and willingness to fight in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds has defined this era.
And a team who knows exactly who they are - made up of players forged in the fire of competition and doubt not just now, but through their whole careers - is dangerous. Nothing matters more than belief. If you have that, you always have the potential to win.
The Memphis Grizzlies believe. Regardless of what comes next, victory can be claimed in that.