WHAT: 2022 NBA Western Conference Semifinals
GAME ONE- Sunday, May 1st at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee (2:30 PM CT, ABC)
GAME TWO- Tuesday, May 3rd at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee (8:30 PM CT/TNT)
GAME THREE- Saturday, May 7th at Chase Center in San Francisco, California (7:30 PM CT, ABC)
GAME FOUR- Monday, May 9th at Chase Center in San Francisco, California (9:00 PM CT, TNT)
GAME FIVE*- Wednesday, May 11th at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee (Time TBD/TNT)
GAME SIX*- Friday, May 13th at Chase Center in San Francisco, California (Time TBD/ESPN)
GAME SEVEN*- Monday, May 16th at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee (Time TBD/TNT)
*= If Necessary
ALL GAMES WILL BE BROADCAST ON THE RADIO ON 92.9 FM ESPN MEMPHIS. BALLY SPORTS SOUTHEAST WILL BE PROVIDING GRIZZLIES-SPECIFIC POSTGAME SHOW IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING GAMES IN THIS SERIES.
THE TALE OF THE TAPE (all stats provided by Cleaning the Glass):
MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES: 4th in Offensive Efficiency (115.8 points per 100 possessions), 5th in Defensive Efficiency (109.6 points per 100 possessions), 4th in Efficiency Differential (+6.2), 22nd in Effective Field Goal Percentage (52.8%), 11th in Defensive eFG% (52.6%)
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP: Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr., Xavier Tillman Sr.
PROJECTED KEY ROTATION PLAYERS: Tyus Jones, Kyle Anderson, Brandon Clarke, Steven Adams
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS: 17th in Offensive Efficiency (112.8 points per 100 possessions), 2nd in Defensive Efficiency (107.6 points per 100 possessions), 5th in Efficiency Differential (+5.2), 4th in Effective Field Goal Percentage (51.3%), 2nd in Defensive eFG% (51.3%)
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP: Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green
PROJECTED ROTATION PLAYERS: Kevon Looney, Otto Porter Jr., Gary Payton II
For the first time since 2015, the Memphis Grizzlies closed out a playoff series with a win when they defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 6 of their first round NBA Playoff series. It was a gritty performance from Memphis - the Grizzlies were outplayed for extended stretches of time against the talented Timberwolves. But the inexperience of Minnesota was not able to close the deal on a consistent basis, and the prior postseason scar tissue that Memphis had earned the previous two seasons came in to play as Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, and others finished off the Wolves across several 4th quarters.
Memphis, still one of the NBA’s youngest teams, took another major step for their franchise on Friday night. That progress is taking them smack in to the path of a familiar foe - both to the history of the Memphis Grizzlies during the Grit and Grind Era, as well as this next generation of bears from Beale Street.
The Golden State Warriors.
After a five game series win over the injured (but likely MVP Award back to back winner Nikola Jokic-led) Denver Nuggets, the Warriors appear to be back at full strength. Steph Curry and Draymond Green have returned to the starting lineup after injuries limited their regular season appearances, and Klay Thompson seems to be at least in the ball park of what he once was as a player in terms of impact, even if he is doing things a bit differently (less raw scoring, more facilitation - career lows in points per shot attempt paired with a career high in assist percentage). Add in Andrew Wiggins’ career year, veteran production off the bench from Otto Porter Jr. and impressive contributions from wings like Jordan Poole and Gary Payton II, and the Warriors are in as strong of a position to make a run at the NBA Finals as they were in 2019.
In fact, they did make (and lost) the Finals that year, and each of the last five times Golden State made the playoffs they got to the NBA Finals. Some things have changed of course - Kevin Durant and others aren’t around anymore, the Big Three of Curry/Thompson/Green are a few years older. But when the Warriors are in the playoffs, they expect a deep run. And Memphis, for the first time in some time, will be viewed as the underdog by many as this series begins.
The Warriors are the favorites in terms of betting at least - on DraftKings Golden State is -260 to take the series. The Grizzlies, however, were able to use their depth through the regular season to finish with a better record than Golden State, and therefore have home court advantage to start the series. It won’t be a lock to hold on to - the Warriors were 22-19 on the road this season and won a game in Denver, not an easy thing to do regardless of which players are healthy for the Nuggets. But it is an advantage nonetheless - having the home energy to latch on to to start a march up the Golden State mountain should be a major help.
Here are some keys to the series.
Get back to Memphis Basketball
The Timberwolves were a tough match-up for the Grizzlies, as many expected. The prediction here was Grizzlies in 5, but the struggles of Ja Morant (who had issues scoring consistently outside of Game 5 but impacted the series in other major ways through his passing and rebounding) and Jaren Jackson Jr. (fouls specifically) plus the impressive execution of game plan by Minnesota made that result get delayed a game. The issues that Memphis had in the Timberwolves series would’ve cost them against a more experienced team (like, say, the Warriors). Thankfully Desmond Bane, Brandon Clarke, and Tyus Jones played some of the best basketball of their careers at key moments and got Memphis over the hump.
Part of that process were some stark changes to the Grizzlies rotation. Steven Adams and De’Anthony Melton, two key cogs to the Memphis regular season machine, were removed from the series because of poor matchups and play (and Adams eventually being in Health and Safety Protocols as well). By Game 6 against Minnesota, Head Coach Taylor Jenkins was essentially utilizing a 7-man rotation, playing Ja Morant/Desmond Bane/Dillon Brooks/Brandon Clarke/Jaren Jackson Jr./Tyus Jones substantial minutes (26 or more) while splitting that 7th spot between starter Xavier Tillman Sr. and reserves Kyle Anderson and John Konchar with about 10-12 minutes played.
These changes helped offset what Minnesota did well against Memphis, and ultimately led to the Grizzlies winning the series. But with different opponents come different issues. And the Grizzlies need to consider going back to what they were before the Timberwolves forced a hard turn.
For example, the new Golden State “death lineup” in terms of starters Curry/Poole/Thompson/Wiggins/Green has plenty of offensive fire power, but it is distributed differently - especially when it comes to the center position. Draymond Green is arguably the best defensive on-ball big in the NBA, but he is not the scoring threat that Towns was. Playing Adams (once he gets out of protocols) makes sense - Morant missed the type of screens “Steve-O” set (led the NBA in screen assists) and the Grizzlies missed his rebounding prowess (led the NBA in offensive rebounds). Adams was strong in three games against Golden State this season, a +7.2 in 3 games played against the Warriors per basketball-reference.com. He played 65 minutes at that rate.
Against Minnesota - 3 regular season games, 65 minutes played as well - Adams was a -34.7.
The Timberwolves were Adams’ worst matchup all season. His struggles were a concern entering that series, and those fears became reality. But Golden State provides a chance, even if Golden State goes small, to get Steven Adams back in to the fold, either as a starter or reserve. That will help Ja Morant in terms of more room to operate off picks. It will help Jaren Jackson Jr. with a big body that can take on the dirty work around the rim and paint.
And it will put the onus to counterpunch on Jenkins’ counterpart in this series.
Force the hand of Steve Kerr
The return of Adams as a starter once he clears protocols is just one way to back Steve Kerr in to a corner with the depth and talent of the Grizzlies. If Memphis goes big and leans on Jaren Jackson Jr. being versatile enough defensively to check Andrew Wiggins, how will they attack Adams? A Green/whoever Ja Morant is defending (personal preference - Klay Thompson, who is not the explosive weapon he once was, but still a very good player that has adapted his game to his new physical reality) pick and roll is not one where a switch would be needed, and even if one did occur Adams checking Klay off the dribble with Jaren weak side help (assuming Wiggins is in a corner) is better than Steph, or even Poole, getting rhythm looks.
It sounds kind of crazy to say “let Klay Thompson beat you”, even if you’re just putting your worst defender on him. But only 10% of Klay Thompson’s shots came at the rim this season - 8th percentile stuff, per Cleaning the Glass. His free throw rate is the 2nd lowest of his career. He lives in the midrange and three point territory, meaning that he is not a threat to get to the rim and attack the paint, like Karl-Anthony Towns could do off the dribble to Adams or even Patrick Beverley to Ja Morant. He is predictable. The calculus changes some if Gary Payton II or Otto Porter Jr. get more run (they both played the same amount or more than Wiggins in the Game 5 closeout win for Golden State), especially with Payton, who between his defensive prowess and improved offensive game could force Memphis to go small and pull Adams once again in favor of Kyle Anderson or Brandon Clarke. They may do that anyway and let Adams play in limited minutes or role - Jaren may hit foul issues trying to hang with the smaller Wiggins. But Thompson’s unwillingness (or inability) to get to the paint can help Memphis navigate that uncertainty and find what fits within their depth.
Klay’s issues defensively also may be something that the Grizzlies could take advantage of - and the issues potentially of the Warriors “Pool Party” back court of Curry and Poole in general. Yes, Golden State had the 2nd best defense in the league during the regular season. But that was in large part due to the brilliance of Draymond Green (he really is very, very good) and the tenacity of the Golden State reserves. Andre Iguodala, Otto Porter Jr., and Gary Payton II all possess defensive points per 100 possessions when on the floor better than when they are off of it. That helps the Warriors hold leads the starters snag off quick offensive work.
Steph Curry actually helps the Warriors defensively more than he gets credit for (94th percentile, teams score 7.3 less points per 100 possessions when Curry is on the floor) but beyond him, Jordan Poole (+.5 more) and Thompson (+2.6) are not as impactful. And Curry is still undersized compared to the Grizzlies wings Desmond Bane and Dillon Brooks, and surely you don’t want your Hall of Fame offensive weapon Curry exerting energy trying to hang with Ja freaking Morant off the dribble.
So this is where Kerr runs in to trouble. In the “death lineup” Curry is technically his best weapon defensively. But that would almost certainly mean one of Jordan Poole or Klay Thompson is tasked with sticking the most explosive, dominant at the rim guard in years in Ja Morant. That likely ends poorly for the Warriors...so does a reserve like Payton II or Porter get the start instead? Or perhaps Andre Iguodala once he returns? Poole has been a reserve before and can be one again without losing what makes him special, but that helps the Grizzlies more evenly distribute the stress on their defense. And none of this acknowledges the ability that Desmond Bane showed as a scorer in the previous series, or the size of Dillon Brooks as a wing that can create his own shot off the dribble. Ja struggled (-4.3 in 3 games against the Warriors this season) with Golden State but has dominated them in the past, and Bane was a strong +15.6 over the Warriors. They can’t defend everyone.
The peak offensive lineup for Golden State cannot defend the Memphis Grizzlies consistently. And the Grizzlies have more talent top to bottom to throw different looks/bodies at whatever Golden State wants to try to do to try to limit Morant or make Memphis pay for his, or anyone elses, defensive shortcomings. So Kerr will have to make some tough choices - and perhaps tweak some things. The Denver Nuggets were undermanned. Memphis is the exact opposite of that. And the experience of having to adjust for the Grizzlies against Minnesota may help in the long run, whereas Golden State perhaps will not be as willing or able to pull the switch on change.
The Warriors getting the early favorite attention is understandable. They have players that have done this before, literally when current members of the Memphis Grizzlies were in high school. They grew up watching Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green dominate the NBA. And Golden State falling below Memphis in seeding potentially had more to do with who was on the floor for the Warriors than who was there for the Grizzlies.
But a funny thing about that - Memphis was able to hold that key #2 seed because of the depth the team possesses. Ja Morant was missed, but Tyus Jones is arguably the best back-up point guard in the NBA. Steven Adams matters a lot to this Memphis team, but the Grizzlies have Brandon Clarke, Kyle Anderson, and Xavier Tillman Sr. to fill that front court void. Dillon Brooks’ absences led to more chances for Desmond Bane and Ziaire Williams to grow their games.
Memphis, much like they did against Minnesota, has the depth advantage over Golden State. The difference is the peak players for the Warriors are better - more experienced. The silly mistakes the Timberwolves made will be few and far between in this series. Between that and the threat of Curry/Thompson/Poole/Wiggins getting hot offensively, this could be the end of a special season for the Grizzlies.
But in order for this team to take the next step, they must - in a 7 game series - knock off someone “better”, or at least more experienced than them. Everyone remaining is good - you could easily argue these are the 8 best teams in the NBA that are left. None of this will be easy. But beating the Wolves was expected. Few outside of Memphis will expect the Grizzlies to knock off the Warriors.
But these young Memphis Grizzlies have done it before - in California, to secure a playoff birth last season. There isn’t a wealth of experience, but this Memphis team knows they can beat the Warriors (even if they weren’t at full strength, Thompson’s absence meant more run for players like Payton II, who is the best possible option for guarding Morant) when the stakes are the most high.
That knowledge - and their depth helping them secure the #2 seed - will come in handy over the next couple of weeks.
PREDICTION - GRIZZLIES IN 7
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