Tuesday night is the most important game for the Memphis Grizzlies since the 2015 NBA Playoffs. This is not hyperbole - the Grizzlies have not been a favorite in a playoff series since April of that year, when the #5 seed (with home court advantage, because the NBA had silly seeding rules back then) Memphis Grizzlies beat the #4 seed (with a 4 game worse record - again, silly due to divisions) Portland Trail Blazers in five games. This was the infamous “Mike Conley broken face” series - thanks for nothing C.J. McCollum - that for all intents and purposes threw off the trajectory of a team that many feel was the best in Memphis history.
That is, until this year, of course.
But the most recent contender for the greatest Grizzlies squad of all-time title has run in to a Minnesota buzzsaw. Make no mistake, when Memphis is on the Timberwolves are outmatched - Memphis has outscored them by 23 in this series overall. Though things are tied 2-2 entering the always crucial Game 5 Tuesday, the last four games suggest that to this point Minnesota has been fortunate that they have disrupted what the Grizzlies do best. The one game that Memphis looked most like themselves was Game 2 - a Grizzlies blowout victory at home in FedExForum. The Minnesota wins have been close (even Game 1, which was a 5 point game with 3 minutes left), and because of Memphis struggling mightily to find their footing and rhythm.
Of course, the Wolves players and coaches deserve credit for that too. They’re playing extremely hard and executing their game plan. But the Grizzlies have played poorly a majority of the last four games as well, and the series is tied. That says that Memphis is the better team - but the Grizzlies have not played like it nearly enough.
If there was ever a time to rediscover that groove, it would be a Game 5. For the winner of these de facto “best of 3” series openers wins the overall series over 82% of the time historically. Memphis has earned the right to have such an important game on Beale Street. But it will be a disappointing showing in FedExForum this week unless things improve for the Grizzlies.
The Wolves will not lie down. They deserve this opportunity to shock the #2 seeded Grizzlies through their work so far in this series. But Memphis can stop the bleeding and get back on track toward advancing to the next round - as the 2015 team before them did. They will just have to adjust their thinking...and do things Minnesota will not expect.
Take Charge - Literally
Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the most uniquely gifted big men in the NBA. He was a Unicorn before Jaren Jackson Jr. was, and a combination of skill and experience has led Towns to outperforming his counterpart to this point in the series. While Memphis has slowed KAT at times thanks to their double team strategy (Game 3’s Minnesota collapse was facilitated in part by this) Towns has countered this by being more aggressive once he gets the ball and not allowing the double team to arrive. He gets downhill and attacks the lane, knowing that he will have the opportunity to finish strong or get fouled by a handsy Grizzlies team. Memphis more often than not loses verticality going for a block, or reaches for a deflection and smacks a wrist or hand, and a foul call gets whistled.
That doesn’t mean the officiating in Game 4 was good. It wasn’t - and overall in the series it has been inconsistent, both ways at times. In Game 4 in particular Minnesota made 6 more free throws (31) than the Grizzlies attempted (25) while Memphis outscored the Timberwolves by 20 in the paint, 50-30. That’s partly due to the whistle being overblown one way in particular. But the Grizzlies aren’t innocent. They play a defensive style that puts them in spots to foul, and Minnesota knows that and is taking advantage.
Towns gets the ball in the high post area near the top of the key. Xavier Tillman Sr., playing a larger role than perhaps he should due to the foul trouble of Jaren Jackson Jr., draws the assignment of defending KAT, but notice how both Bane (defending Patrick Beverley) and Kyle Anderson (guarding Taurean Prince) have Towns in their line of sight as well. They understand the goal of Memphis - force KAT to make choices, more often than not to facilitate to other less-gifted scorers. A Prince or Beverley open shot isn’t ideal. But neither of those players is the caliber of Towns.
KAT goes right, as he often does, and not only does Kyle Anderson come to help weak side but Dillon Brooks abandons D’Angelo Russell once he sees Towns commit to the drive and assists on defending the shot attempt as well. But look at the positioning of Brooks - his body is on the side of Towns, not in front of him, and the hand up to try to complicate the shot attempt is opposite the ball. While it is a narrower lane than Towns would’ve had if Dillon had stayed with Russell, it’s still one a big as skilled and large compared to his defenders as Towns can take advantage of. It isn’t a foul, as the picture of Jaren trying to block a similar KAT attempt above shows, but it is a made Towns bucket - something the Grizzlies saw far too often Saturday night.
Instead of letting a talent like KAT get to the rim at will, Memphis should see the aggression of Towns and use it against him. Allow for him to go where he wants to - he gets there more often than not anyway - and force his momentum to be a detriment, rather than a strength.
There’s a solution. But it’s gonna hurt a little.
Stop jumping to block shots. Take a charge.
In numerous examples Saturday night, Towns came down with a head of steam and attacked the basket. And far too often he either drew a foul (15-17 from the free throw line) or make a bucket at the rim. His confidence is fluid, as we saw in Games 3 and 4 - he ebbs and flows with his own performance. Frustrate him. Instead of rising up to contest a shot, just set your feet and allowing the 6’11”, 250 pound KAT to run you over after you beat him to the spot on the floor (outside the restricted area), would ruin his rhythm and make those truly impressive fadeaways and jumpers he hit to close Game 4 tougher to convert.
The Memphis Grizzlies ranked 2nd to last in the NBA in charges drawn in the regular season, which when it comes to hustle stats is actually pretty surprising considering how active Memphis is in other defensive hustle categories, like deflections (2nd in the NBA) and loose balls recovered (1st). But because of their standing at the bottom of the league in this category, adding this wrinkle would surely disrupt the gameplan of Minnesota. The Miami Heat are the NBA leaders in this area, and it has helped them achieve at a high level this season. Memphis should watch Heat film at practice and shootaround before the game.
It’s about going all-in. Do so physically here. The Timberwolves are daring the Grizzlies to do it. So step up, plant a firm base, and instead of jumping brace for impact with arms fully extended and take a bump like a professional wrestler. Let Towns and others launch in to you, instead of the other way around.
It’s a whole new way to force a turnover for a Memphis team desperate for openings to make Minnesota feel as uncomfortable as the Wolves have made them feel.
Sink or swim with a smaller rotation - and less “foul trouble”
After the strong words of Taylor Jenkins as part of his Game Four postgame media availability, chances are a fine is coming for the Memphis Head Coach - and perhaps a bit more respect from the officials in terms of letting the players on the floor decide the outcome of the game. But make no mistake, the way most of these contests have gone have drastically impacted not just the Grizzlies rotations, but their overall rhythm. Because of the pace at which they play, fewer teams would be more negatively impacted by slower, possession-by-possession slugfests than the Memphis Grizzlies (weird to say for those among us forged by Grit and Grind). Throughout the end of the regular season how much that mattered has been debated. And while it is for reasons that were not entirely predicted, the idea that the Grizzlies will struggle with the change to the playoff style has to this point been essentially confirmed.
It has made players like De’Anthony Melton, who perhaps outside of Ja Morant relies on pace of play most to be impactful, less effective. And it has forced Jenkins to improvise far more than he’d like to due to sitting players with “foul trouble” - two fouls in the first quarter, four fouls in the third, and so on. 12 players - 12! - saw playing time in Game 4’s first quarter. That is absurd, not entirely Jenkins’ fault, and a sign of things going poorly.
If the officials are going to impact the game, and if your young team is struggling with adjusting to the whistle, then lean in to it. It is time for Coach Jenkins to call a different kind of audible and shorten the rotation, come what may foul trouble wise. If Jaren Jackson Jr. fouls out in the 3rd quarter in 22 minutes of play, so be it. Then you concern yourself with what comes next. But this Memphis team cannot afford to go long stretches with all of Jackson Jr., Desmond Bane, and Ja Morant off the floor. They’re simply not good enough.
To that end, Game 5 in Memphis will be on a Tuesday evening after the Grizzlies last played on a Saturday night in Minnesota. Game 6 will be back at Minneapolis’ Target Center on Friday night - another two days between games. Memphis boasts one of the league’s youngest rosters - outside of Ja Morant’s apparent acknowledgement of not being 100% just yet from his knee issues and Dillon Brooks’ ankle/foot issue that he says isn’t an issue, they’re relatively healthy.
So why have no Grizzlies played 40 minutes or more in three of the four games Memphis has played? Because of the aforementioned “foul trouble” - and the oft-discussed depth that the Grizzlies display.
But depth in the postseason should be about lineups and mismatches - not getting everyone run.
Assuming “foul trouble” is less of an issue one way (“better” officiating) or another (the previously suggested looser leash on being sat down after fouls) and health is not a concern in terms of minutes restrictions, three players should play at least 40 minutes - Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, and Dillon Brooks. Jaren Jackson Jr. should be #4, but realistically that is asking a lot of a big - 36 minutes is fine to shoot for with JJJ. That is 156 of 240 possible rotation minutes already logged between those 4 players.
4 others should play - Tyus Jones, Brandon Clarke, and some combination of Kyle Anderson/De’Anthony Melton/Ziaire Williams/John Konchar/Xavier Tillman Sr., preferably in that order - the remaining 84.
Tyus Jones and Brandon Clarke have earned it - they’ve arguably been two of the best three Grizzlies players in the series, along with Desmond Bane. Those two logging 26-ish minutes each would be more than understandable. Beyond Tyus and Brandon, the other choices all have strengths and weaknesses. Anderson’s ability to handle and facilitate offense while being defensively versatile likely means he should see 22-24 minutes. But that 8th man could be a variety of people. Melton has struggled in this series, and as our Brandon Abraham points out in this Twitter thread the main argument for Melt even when his shot isn’t falling - his defensive acumen - has not been present.
So why not allow for Ziaire Williams, who has taken and made more threes and figures to be part of the Memphis long-term plans, get opportunity. Or, perhaps a bit out of left field to most (but not all - shout out Chris Herrington of the Daily Memphian and others), allowing a defensively flawed but 41% three point shooting and elite rebounding wing John Konchar get a meaningful chance at minutes. This was less of a good option entering the series, as we operated under the assumption that the better defending Melton (who also rebounds well for his position) would be stronger offensively than he has been. But entering this key Game 5, a decent sample size has been built up. If Melton’s defensive impact has been negated, and he isn’t making threes...perhaps an acknowledgement of that in terms of time for a Konchar would make more sense.
Xavier Tillman Sr., the hero of Game 2 of this series, provides effective energy and footwork defensively alongside timely offense. But the gap in terms of what can be done between Jackson Jr./Clarke/Anderson to Tillman is drastic. If Steven Adams is not involved (he shouldn’t be right now) those three players should rotate the front court through.
Morant/Bane/Brooks at 40 minutes. Jackson Jr. at 36. Jones and Clarke at 26, Anderson at 22. That’d leave 10 minutes for an 8th man to spell players, or increase a role if needed due to actual “foul trouble”. The Grizzlies have to focus on playing their best players more, and if that means adjusting coaching preferences regarding foul concerns so be it.
Let them learn in action. The way of sitting when committing poor fouls (as Jaren Jackson Jr. has been over and over) isn’t reaching them. And the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting a different result.
Time to shake things up a bit.
Not since 2015 has Memphis prepared for such a high stakes affair. Being the favorite means expectations - and the Grizzlies have not consistently played to them, or their own standard, in this series. The Timberwolves are part of why that is the case. But the good news is, their own way of shaking up how Memphis operates can be negated if Head Coach Taylor Jenkins, his staff, and the roster at large is willing to lean in to the strange vibe of this series and try some things they haven’t looked to before.
Now isn’t the time to be proud. The season, for all intensive purposes, is on the line. And when you’re the #2 seed in the NBA Playoffs overall thanks to regular season performance, any way you view it (young team, not “fully” in as a contender front office move wise) a loss to a 7 seed would be a disappointment.
It may not work out that way, even without drastic shifts in philosophy. But in this life, you either adapt to your surroundings or you don’t. And you deal with the consequences either way.
The Memphis Grizzlies continue to grow before our eyes. Game 5 is another opportunity to seize that reality and add a layer to the identity they’ve already built.
It’s all in time - and well past time to shock the Minnesota system. Will Memphis make the call?