The 2022 first-round series between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Memphis Grizzlies commenced in rather commonplace fashion. The Timberwolves upset the apple cart and stole a pivotal Game 1 in Memphis, shifting the home-court advantage paradigm. The Grizzlies retorted with an equalizing effort in Game 2. From Game 3 onward, Minny squandered several opportunities to cast the Grizz into an ineluctable hole.
The shortcomings of the young Wolves team were not solely on the players. The coaching staff and front office made decisions leading up to, and especially during the final four games of the series, that allowed the Grizzlies to breathe new air when otherwise drowning.
The first stop lies at head coach Chris Finch’s proverbial doorstep. Game 3 saw the series shift back to the Target Center tied at a game a pop, exactly what a road team could wish for. For three quarters, Minnesota played outstanding basketball. By the end of the third, they led 83-67, holding on to what was once as high as a 26 point lead in the second quarter.
Prior, that same 26-point Wolves lead with 10:28 left to go in the second quarter was diminished to seven, before Minny recovered nearly all of it back by extending the lead to 25 with 3:10 left in the third. A seesaw game of runs culminated in the ensuing downfall.
Then a blunder happened. The Grizzlies scored 16 unanswered points. To make matters worse, they cut the 16 point deficit to single digits, not only in two minutes, but also in three made baskets, going 75% from the floor in that frame. By the 8:33 mark, the game was tied. It took Memphis three minutes and 27 seconds to erase their lead.
Finch did not call a timeout in that entire stretch. Let that sink in. Quite frankly, the only coaches who are notorious for, and earned the privilege to hold their peace when opposing teams made exacerbated runs are Phil Jackson, and Gregg Popovich. Both are multiple-time champions, who even amidst stoicism, knew when stakes were too high to refrain from letting their players just play through it.
At some point, you have to stop the bleeding. Fairly, it was Finch’s first home playoff game of his career, but the rudiments to stopping the bleeding must be adhered to regardless of experience level.
The Timberwolves went on to lose Game 4 by nine points. The 26-point comeback is tied for the fourth-largest in NBA playoff history. But it doesn’t stop there. In perhaps the most pivotal game of the series - Game 5 - the Timberwolves again found themselves with a healthy lead.
Up 13 points with mere seconds to go at the end of the third, the Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell-led ball club (and let’s not forget Patrick Beverley of course) maintained a double digit lead until the 6:58 mark of the fourth.
99-88 was the score. In the words of Snoop Dogg, “murder was the case that they gave me.” Those should’ve been KAT’s words in the press conference postgame. Instead, and much to Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, and their team’s credit, they once again clawed back. An 11-point lead was cut to one, and a 10-0 run was met with… no earlier timeout from Finch.
There is no existing gripe with Finch. His laudatory coaching was a major catalyst in the Wolves making the playoffs, and giving the Grizzlies a major scare. But it would behoove the now third-year head coach to give his team what he is good at - and paid for - insight from a former pro, in the midst of turmoil.
With a couple of timeouts, we could be having a very different conversation. But like Kobe’s four air balls in 1997, failures can be the biggest blessing in disguise. There’s little doubt his mistakes won’t be made again.
The next gaffe lies with Russell and Towns. As it pertains to Russell, 12 points per game (PPG), on 33% shooting from the floor for the series was very underwhelming by his standards. The Wolves needed a third scorer to give them efficient production, and D-Lo dropped the ball.
Uncharacteristic of Mr. “Ice in my Veins” himself, Russell struggled to find his own shot, and get the step off of the pick-and-roll. His motor wasn’t where he, and we, have seen it before, and it was a performance that he knows he can, and most likely will bounce back from.
His one silver lining was his timely 3s in a couple of games during the series, particularly the game three debacle.
As for Towns, two of his biggest flaws did not show up on the stat sheet. One of which was his inability to establish positioning in the low to mid-post, and pass out of the double team. Throughout most of the games, the Grizz would bring a second defender on the strong side to disrupt the flow of KAT’s offense.
The reigning 3-point contest champion frequently attempted cross-court bullet passes, or to split the defense in traffic, to no avail. All too often, he’d stand stationary on the left block, looking over his shoulder, telegraphing his moves.
While Edwards was superb, Towns only went 1-4 in the fourth quarter of Game 6, to cap off an 18-point night on a very inefficient 6-19 shooting from the field. In Game 3, Towns only attempted one shot in the fourth. Contrarily, he did have 14 points in the fourth quarter of their Game 4 win, and nine points in crunch time of Game 5.
The bus stops at the front office. ex-President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas was fired after the beginning of the season for good reason. Outside of his controversial shortcomings, his inability to place a defensive combo forward/center next to KAT spelled disaster for the Wolves at the rim, where Ja Morant feasted.
A monster at points in the paint regardless of who is in front of him, the Timberwolves also struggled in the pick and roll containing Morant. When defenses broke down, Desmond bane grabbed the proverbial spoon, and took his turn feasting. Interim president Sachin Gupta did not make a notable free agent signing or trade, to strengthen the defense.
The greatest defensive shortcoming that Minnesota dealt with against Memphis was their transition defense. Desmond Bane wreaked havoc in transition, pulling up from 3.
While new team president Tim Connelly pulled off one of the trades of the offseason in landing Rudy Gobert, there are questions as to how impactful the move will be come playoff time. While the Timberwolves will be well equipped in the rim protection department, Gobert is a byword of a name in the high pick and roll, where his footspeed lacks.
Connelly may want to look at signing another flex power forward/center, who is proficient in pick and roll defense, to have stashed away on their bench. The addition of Kyle Anderson brings in a high IQ forward who moves well laterally despite his “Slow Mo” nickname, but more reinforcements may be wise.
There are many other takeaways that could be had from a teachable first-round series that will hopefully make the ball club better. Ultimately, the core of the team will have to find a way to balance size with speed, and interior play with perimeter shooting. Coach Finch will have to be more situationally aware, and bring out the best of his talent, in what is cooking up to be a promising year.