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A Word with the Wolves before Game 5

I talk with Jack Borman of Canis Hoopus about a critical Game 5.

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2022 NBA Playoffs - Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

When it comes to the NBA Playoffs, it could be argued that Game 5s are the most important matchups of all. Obviously, Game 7 - when each team’s season is on the line, is fundamentally the most critical. But most series don’t last seven games. In fact, since the NBA adopted a best-of-seven series format for the first round in 2003 there have only been 60 Game 7s in the NBA Playoffs. There have been 285 playoff series in that span, which means only 21% of playoff series go to a game seven.

Since 2003, only 16.5% of playoff series have resulted in a sweep. Meaning 83.5% of playoff series reach a Game 5. Teams that win Game 5 of a 2-2 best-of-seven series go on to win the series 84.1% of the time (116-22). So as Memphis and Minnesota prepare for a matchup in the Grindhouse, the GrzNxtGen Grizzlies prepare for their biggest game yet.

I chatted with Jack Borman of Canis Hoopus, the Minnesota Timberwolves SBNation blog, to discuss the importance of tonight’s matchup.

Andrew: When I look ahead at the rest of this series, I can’t help but be concerned about Ja Morant. He has not looked right for two and a half games. He has lacked aggression and his side-to-side acceleration has diminished, making him a massive liability on defense. Without Ja driving to the basket and creating open shots for his teammates in the process, the Grizzlies offense has struggled to get uncontested jumpers. This is a testament to Minnesota’s improved defense and physical intensity but many Grizzlies fans think Ja must be injured. What have you seen?

Jack: I obviously haven’t watched Ja for the entire season and, admittedly, think he is a bit overrated in a playoff setting because defenses do not respect his jump shot – and rightfully so. As a result, it allows teams, such as Minnesota, that have the length and quickness on the perimeter to contain a breathtakingly insane athlete like Morant and force the basketball out of his hands.

Wolves head coach Chris Finch made an adjustment in Game 3 to have his defense sag off every Grizzly not named Desmond Bane in order to clog the paint and force Morant to become a passer on the drive, which is something he has struggled with (relatively) this season. Morant was third in drives per game (20.9) and first in points per game on drives (14.8) in the regular season, but passed on just 28.5% of his drives and committed nearly as many turnovers (1.4) as he converted assists (1.6) on drives. Morant has an incredible 25 assists since Finch made the switch and was excellent as a playmaker down the stretch of the Game 3 comeback for the ages. But, he also has committed nine turnovers (that the Wolves have turned into 12 points) and made only nine field goals in that span. He got outplayed by Wolves backup point guard Jordan McLaughlin in Game 4, who got a DNP-CD in Game 3.

He may well be hampered by an injury, but he still regularly makes plays (or attempts to) with a very high degree of difficulty that showcase otherworldly athleticism. Morant, like Anthony Edwards, is making too many plays fueled by an unmatched burst for me to think an injury is impacting him more than the way he is being defended. I find it interesting that Morant said what he said about his health after a loss compared to Game 3, because I didn’t think he looked worse in Game 4 than Game 3. Most guys on both sides experiencing constant aches and pains is par for the course at this stage of the season. It’s not the best look to talk trash after a win and then try to explain how you aren’t yourself after a loss two nights later. I’m excited to see how Ja responds at home with more juice in Game 5.

At his peak, he’s one of the game’s most exciting players and I hope he gets to a place where he feels better physically as soon as possible so we can all enjoy the generational spectacle Ja Morant is with the ball in his hands.

Morant is surely being hunted on defense, a trend that has crescendoed throughout the series, but I cannot say with certainty whether him being banged up is the true reason why. He isn’t a good defender to begin with and I was surprised Minnesota didn’t force more switches onto him earlier in the series. If the Wolves can create shots for the rest of the series like they did as a result of Pat Bev driving at Morant in Game 3, that’s a major issue for Memphis. The Grizzlies will surely live with Pat Bev as a playmaker (and rightfully so), so this will be something to watch in Games 5 and 6.

What are the biggest adjustments Memphis needs to make in order to mitigate Morant’s injury, if he may only be 80% for the rest of this series?

Andrew: If Ja is hurt or at least nursing an injury, then Tyus Jones must see more minutes. Jones, arguably the league’s best backup point guard, has averaged 17.3 minutes per game in the series but is scoring 10.3 points per game and four assists on 48.3/63.6% shooting splits. Jones has proven throughout the season that he is more than capable of running the Memphis offense in Ja’s absence. Taylor Jenkins deployed an 11-man rotation in Game 4, mainly due to early foul trouble. But even in Games 1-3, Jenkins rolled with 10 guys. I, along with many Grizzlies fans, would like to see the rotation cut down to 8 or 9 players, assuming the refs don’t force Jenkins’s hand, with Tyus getting a serious bump in playing time.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies - Game One Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Jack: Specifically, are there any adjustments to be made so that Memphis can more effectively defend Minnesota’s guards so that they have a tougher time hunting Morant?

Andrew: Even if Ja’s defense has been exposed the last couple of games, that should not be Jenkins’s main concern heading into Game 5. Ja is usually matched up on Beverley so as long as he is able to avoid the switch, the Grizzlies can live with PatBev averaging almost nine shots a game.

Instead, Memphis’s coaching staff should focus on shutting down Karl-Anthony Towns, something they have shown they can do. In the Grizzlies two victories, Towns has scored 15 and 8 points while committing five fouls in each contest. In Game 1, it was obvious from the get-go that Steven Adams had no place guarding Towns, so the Grizzlies turned to Jaren Jackson Jr., Xavier Tillman, Brandon Clarke, and Kyle Anderson to cover KAT. With Jackson consistently in foul trouble, Tillman and Anderson have had flashes of success guarding Towns, with each pointing to film as a helpful way to pick up Towns’s tendencies.

Obviously, foul trouble and the referees have played a massive role in the series thus far, and Game 4 was no exception. Towns shot 17 free throws on Saturday, the second-highest total of his career. Jackson, who has struggled with foul trouble his whole career, has averaged five fouls a game in the series and fouled out in Game 4. Every player in the Grizzlies starting lineup, as well as Anderson, had 4+ fouls last game.

The games have had little flow with the whistle being blown nearly every other possession. There has been a lot of frustration from both sides about the calls throughout the series and fans, collectively, would like to hear less air in the whistle going forward. What have been your thoughts on the refereeing so far and how do you see it affecting the rest of the series?

Jack: Both teams foul a lot. Towns (3.66), Jackson Jr. (3.56) and Jaden McDaniels (3.24) were all top 10 in the NBA in most fouls committed per game this season. I fully expect the whistle to keep blowing at the pace it has because those three, plus players such as Brooks, Anderson, Tillman, Beverley and Russell have all been handsy of late; the refs have been consistent with rewarding players who show their hands and penalizing those who don’t.

The Grizzlies starting five was in foul trouble in Game 4, and correctly so, because they had their hands all over Wolves players – especially Towns – on the perimeter after mostly refraining from that in the first three games of the series. The officials have been fine with marginal body contact but, playoffs or not, they rarely let teams who get handsy off the hook. Taylor Jenkins and Memphis fans can complain all they want to about fouls, but Memphis has benefitted from the whistle more than Minnesota has; put differently and more plainly, they’ve fouled less than Minnesota has over the course of the series.

From my view, it’s ridiculous that Jenkins blew up the officials the way he did because Memphis was far more hands-on and less straight up in Game 4 than in the previous three games. It’s fine to complain about a call here and there, but legitimately pointing to it as the reason your team won or lost a game is an emotional, irrational response. We’re all guilty of it at times, myself included, but once cooler heads prevail, reality sets in. Here, the reality is that Memphis missed six free throws, committed 19 turnovers, and executed its half-court offense poorly down the stretch of the game, yet lost by just one point. I’d start there before assigning blame to the officials as the reason the Grizzlies lost. By the way, the NBA didn’t find a single incorrect call on the game’s last two-minute report.

These officials have called it tight, yes. But the number of fouls (albeit on a bit of an inflated scale) appropriately tells the story of which team struggled to defend without fouling on that night. In Games 1, 2 and 3, it was Minnesota, which shouldn’t be surprising considering the Wolves committed more fouls than any team in the league this season. On Saturday night, it was Memphis. As an expert in seeing officials’ reactions to complaining (KAT is awesome in many ways, but not in that department), they rarely respond well to beratement, whether it is before, during or after games. The home team generally benefits from the whistle more in the playoffs, so I don’t think we’ll see the Wolves shoot 40 free throws again in Game 5, but both sides need to show their hands if they want to keep each other off the line moving forward.

Will Memphis have enough to win the series if Morant continues to struggle on the offensive end? If so, what needs to happen for that to take place?

Andrew: Fortunately for the Grizzlies, other players have stepped up when Ja’s struggled to get shots to go down. Desmond Bane has played the best basketball of his career the last two games and should always be on the floor when Ja is out. His three-point shooting and his playmaking helped the Grizzlies come back in Game 3 and he was one of the only reasons Game 4 was even close. Bane averaged 18.2 points per game on 46.1/43.6% shooting splits for the 2021-2022 campaign. He exceeded expectations throughout the regular season and he has gone to a whole other level for the postseason. Through four games, Bane is averaging 23.3 points per game on 48.4/48.7% shooting splits. That is ridiculous. His three-point percentage is higher than his total field goal percentage and when you are watching the games, you feel it. Every three Bane puts up feels like it is going in, and while his success is probably not sustainable for an entire playoff run, the Grizzlies need Bane more than ever to keep his hot hand as he has accounted for over 40% of Memphis threes so far.

While Bane has had the tough task of guarding Edwards for much of the series, Brooks has been assigned to Russell. His defensive effort cannot be overlooked, as he has limited DLo to 13.3 points per game on 30.9% shooting through the first four games. The Grizzlies clearly came into the series with the mindset of eliminating Russell from the equation and not letting the gifted scorer get hot.

Brooks has thrived as a facilitator, driving through the defense and creating open shots. At several points in Game 4, Brooks hit highly contested shots to stop Minnesota runs and keep Memphis in fighting distance. Going forward, I would like to see even more of Brooks. Obviously foul trouble can hamper his playing time, but he has averaged 33 minutes in the series. When it comes to the playoffs, though, you play your best guys 40 minutes a game, if necessary. Jenkins can’t keep a talented two-way forward like Brooks on the bench for long and DB is maybe the Grizzlies’ biggest X-factor for the rest of the series.

If the Grizzlies are looking to take control of the series, then Jenkins must lean on his best guys, even if they find themselves in foul trouble. At the end of the day, the Playoffs are where stars are meant to shine, and for Memphis to advance and make a run this postseason, they need more from their top players.

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