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NBA Playoffs Preview Guide - Timberwolves vs Grizzles: A Growing Rivalry Renewed Out West

Headlined by two of the NBA’s brightest young stars in Anthony Edwards and Ja Morant, the West’s hot new rivalry is renewed in the playoffs.

LA Clippers v Minnesota Timberwolves - Play-In Tournament Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves and the Memphis Grizzlies despise each other.

Respect is shared somewhere between the two rising teams, but it is buried deep beneath a healthy hate that has served as rocket fuel for the Western Conference’s fastest growing rivalry.

The roots began to grow in May of last year, when Anthony Edwards dropped 42 points as part of a furious Wolves comeback effort that came up short against the Grizzlies — thanks to Ja Morant’s 37-point, 10-assist effort — 139-135.

That loss marked Minnesota’s sixth consecutive loss to Memphis, dating back to November of 2019, but also signaled that the Grizzlies weren’t the only young, up and coming team on the banks of the Mississippi River.

The Timberwolves came into this season carrying a Patrick Beverley sized chip on their collective shoulder, determined to change the trajectory of the franchise and the narratives surrounding it.

An early season matchup in Memphis was an excellent opportunity for the Wolves to send a message, despite the team’s 3-5 start to that point. After a back-and-forth first half, Minnesota thoroughly dominated Memphis in the third quarter, outscoring them 32-21 to carry an 11-point cushion into the fourth quarter. The Wolves set a high water mark of 16 points with 7:30 left in the game, before Morant and running mate Jaren Jackson Jr. took the game over and eventually won in OT.

When the Grizzlies pulled into Target Center two weeks later, Edwards and the Wolves were riding a two-game winning streak and had revenge on their minds.

Minnesota blitzed Memphis to the tune of 40-23 in the first quarter, behind Edwards’ 17 points on 6/6 shooting, and never looked back. Wolves’ head coach Chris Finch’s game plan completely neutralized Morant and Jackson Jr., who combined for 23 points on 5/18 shooting.

“I feel like once I hit the shot it’s over for anybody. It don’t matter,” Edwards proclaimed postgame. “I’m known for getting to the rim and layups. But once my 3 ball fall, you’re all in trouble. My first shot was a 3 and I made it so nothing else was on my mind but they’re in trouble now.”

Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins didn’t mince words after the game, saying the Wolves “punked” them.

That game changed the course of the Wolves’ season. Minnesota went on to win four of its next five games to climb back above .500 for the first time in five weeks, proving to themselves they had what it takes to compete for a playoff spot in the West.

The clubs’ final two matchups were heavyweight bouts that featured each team throwing some serious haymakers in entertaining back-and-forth affairs on par with playoff basketball. Both head coaches, Finch and Taylor Jenkins, are NBA Coach of the Year candidates and these games illustrated why. Both teams were well-composed down the stretch, played true to their evident identities, and executed after timeout (ATO) plays well.

The two split the season series two apiece, with the home team winning all four games. The Wolves got the last laugh, however, winning the final matchup of the regular season 119-114 in Minneapolis.

Morant conceded, despite the loss, how much he enjoys the competition with Minnesota.

“I can say probably my favorite team to play. How they got guys who are bought into what they wanna do, win games with the three,” Morant said after the game. “Great team. They battle for a full 48 minutes and stick to what they do on the floor, doing that at a very high level.”

After Minnesota won an emotional play-in game, truly a religiously cathartic experience for everyone in the building, “We Want Memphis!” chants broke out throughout Target Center. Shortly thereafter, Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley picked the Wolves to beat Memphis in the series. Morant took note.


How this series will begin is tough to gauge.

The Wolves are coming off an incredibly hard fought win in the 7/8 play-in game that undoubtedly took pressure off of them moving forward, considering the circumstances. Karl-Anthony Towns was a non-factor and fouled out with 7:36 remaining and his team down seven points.

Edwards and smooth operating point guard D’Angelo Russell took the torch and dominated the rest of the game by scoring 15 of Minnesota’s 23 points in the final 7:36, while joining forces with veteran guard Patrick Beverley to play stellar defense when the team needed it most.

Los Angeles Clippers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Securing a massive win in adverse circumstances will help not only Edwards, who was playing in the first postseason game of his NBA career, but also young rotation players like Malik Beasley, Jaden McDaniels, Jarred Vanderbilt and Naz Reid, who all have either none or very limited postseason experience. Not to mention, they did it without Taurean Prince, a crucial veteran cog in a bench machine that has been excellent since January 1.

Memphis, conversely, was essentially locked into the No. 2 seed in the West once Steph Curry went down on March 17. The Grizzlies have still played hard since then, of course, but the magnitude of those games, especially in April, hasn’t been on the same level as those Minnesota has played.

Morant has played in only one of the Grizzlies’ five April games (and just eight of their 19 games since March 1) because of a tweaked knee. Jenkins said on March 27 that the Grizzlies expected Morant to make a full return prior to the playoffs; whether he is at 100% is uncertain, but the lack of play over the last month-plus may cause some rust.

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

I’m in the camp that I would much rather play a “wild card” or “play-in” game than be the team who has to rest, because a getting a postseason win under your belt, especially for a young team, is a significant confidence booster. Both of these teams are very tight internally, celebrate each other constantly, talk a ton of trash and are extremely confident, so that boost could be pivotal for Minnesota.

The Wolves won’t fear or back down from the Grizzlies, either. Minnesota is one of five teams in the NBA to beat Memphis at least twice this season, along with Dallas (three wins), Portland (three), Atlanta (two) and Boston (two).

The only thing I know for a fact heading into this series is that these two teams are going to show what sports are all about: competing, showing emotion and having fun.

But once the games are off and running, here’s what you need to watch for.


Matchups to Watch

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

Minnesota Perimeter Defense vs. Ja Morant

What Morant has done this year is certifiably absurd for a point guard. He leads the entire league in points in the paint per game (16.7) and trailed only LeBron James (4.7) in fast break points per game (4.4). The lethal combination of wreaking havoc inside and in transition, enabled by a generational blend of athleticism and touch, is extremely rare.

The athletically overwhelming manner in which Morant can get to the basket is tough to handle on any given night during the NBA regular season, especially later in the season as fatigue can get progressively worse. However, the playoffs are a different animal.

The game is going to slow down in a playoffs series and there likely will not be as many live ball turnovers and, thus, transition opportunities.

Despite that, Morant still managed to destroy the Utah Jazz, who had the league’s best half-court defense last season, in the first round of the playoffs, averaging 30.2 points on 48.7/32,3/77.5 shooting splits, 4.8 rebounds and 8.2 assists to 3.4 turnovers per game. Where the Jazz and Wolves differ is that Minnesota has a stable of high-level perimeter defenders, while ‘20-21 Utah had arguably the worst defensive back-court in the NBA.

Minnesota is more than capable of adeptly defending Morant, as they’ve shown this season. I won’t get too complex here, but you can see his numbers have taken a good dip in four contests against the Wolves, primarily because he has struggled to consistently beat their high wall coverage.

Here’s a good example of Morant showing he’s human when he gets trapped. The Wolves opened with Jaden McDaniels on him, and Morant couldn’t do what he wanted to, which is turn the corner and explode to the rim.

The Wolves are icing Morant here to force him into KAT, who does an excellent job of positioning himself in a way that gives Morant limited options. Adams isn’t a very athletic rolling option and doesn’t give his point guard a good window to pass through, partly because KAT starts his back pedal at the right time.

Edwards is the low man, in position for a weak side tag, but he hides behind Adams and Towns so Morant thinks Jaren Jackson Jr. is open in the corner.

Minnesota needs to force Morant to either pick up his dribble or make passes in mid-air, as he isn’t as good playing off of two feet. They’ve been very successful in limiting him this season precisely because they have done those two things on a consistent basis in ball screen action. If Finch and his coaching staff can build a game plan to bother Morant with length, I love the Wolves’ odds to win the series.

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

Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Memphis Front-Court

Simply put, Towns has to dominate against a favorable matchup. He has scored at least 21 points in every matchup against the Grizzlies this season — despite him playing less than 30 minutes in two of the four games (both wins) —, carrying shooting splits of 52.1/38.1/73.3.

Given that Memphis has guarded Towns relatively straight up (meaning they have infrequently brought high or low doubles), he should feast if Jenkins decides to go that route again in this series. Part of that also has to do with where Finch positions Towns on the floor.

Against Los Angeles in the play-in game, KAT was posting up at the nail and would have a second defender in his face by the time he turned and faced up. Running him off screens against less mobile bigs in JJJ and Adams will be a good option to get him going both as a shooter and a driver who is great at attacking closeouts.

The recipe for success against Memphis has been pretty simple for KAT:

1) If JJJ guards him, use him as a shooter to bring the Grizzlies’ best rim defender away from the rim.

2) If Adams is the matchup, go at him on the drive. Adams has very slow feet and is prone to hack when he’s beat.

Whomever is tasked with guarding KAT will look to force him into situations where he turns it over. This season, Towns is averaging 0.5 turnovers per game in wins vs Memphis and 4.5 per game in losses.

If Minnesota sticks to the basic framework laid out here, depending on his matchup, I would be surprised to see KAT experience turnover issues. He struggles with turnovers in two main scenarios.

1) On the drive against defenders big and mobile enough to stay with him

Jackson Jr. is capable of doing this if he slides his feet the right way and doesn’t bite on any fakes. I’d be surprised if Jenkins didn’t start with JJJ on Towns. Adams is a terrible matchup for Towns on paper and in reality, especially considering Memphis can put him on Vanderbilt under the rim.

2) In the post against well-executed quick doubles

No. 2 is less of a factor in this series unless Memphis goes small and guards KAT with someone like Kyle Anderson or Brandon Clarke off the bench in five-out situations.

The easiest way to keep KAT’s turnover numbers down and the floor spaced — arguably the two most crucial points of emphasis for the Wolves’ half court-offense — is to use him as a shooter. Towns’ shooting is the key that opens up the game for himself and his teammates and cannot be abandoned.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Role Playing Wings

The wing matchups this series will create is fun to think about. Both teams have been successful this season because their rotations on the wing are nicely balanced and fit very well around each’s respective core.

Minnesota

The trio of McDaniels, Beasley and Prince have all taken ceiling-altering strides over the course of this season. Collectively, they are shooting 36.3% on over 1,000 3-point attempts on the year, but that mark has climbed to 41.1% on about 300 shots since the All-Star break, led by Beasley’s torrid 45.2% mark on 155 triggers.

Their success on offense coupled with their opponents’ inability to hunt them on defense has been a major driving force behind the Wolves’ success in the half-court with playing five-out lineups. Minnesota’s bench is second in points per game (43.1) since the turn of the new year as a result of their five-out success.

All three play crucial roles in both blended starters/bench lineups as well as those featuring solely reserves, each of which are driven by excellent playmaking guards. McDaniels, Beasley and Prince play extremely well off of the Minnesota guards both as cutters and shooters. They each have excellent spatial awareness and know how to collapse defenses with cuts in order free each other up in the corners or slots, from where they can get into the paint, too.

Minnesota’s worst nightmare is a power outage from two of its core three pieces; but even if that does happen, it isn’t a given that the Wolves’ dream season is going to be ended abruptly, because their bench battery on the wing can infuse energy back into the game on both ends, just like they did in Game 83.

Memphis

The tricky question surrounding the Memphis bench is simply, who plays?

Jenkins has a fun assortment of players that have a knack for bringing exactly what he’s looking for when he calls their respective numbers.

Ziaire Williams is an emerging rookie wing prospect out of Stanford that has given Memphis excellent defensive versatility and hit-and-miss scoring that is largely driven by his 3-point shooting one way or the other.

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Switchable defender and slithery finisher Kyle Anderson has seen a decreased role this year in favor of 6-foot-5 sharpshooting grinder John Konchar (who infamously scored 15 points and grabbed an outrageous 17 rebounds in a win over the Wolves back in January) and figures to see spot minutes at best.

Konchar can handle the ball, scoring in the paint and from behind the arc, and has a knack for offensive rebounding at the guard spot, which is a valuable skill against an inept rebounding team such as the Wolves. He will be the one to carry the torch as the new Wolves Killer™, taking over for Dillon Brooks.

The biggest wildcard here is Brooks, who has struggled profusely since the All-Star break. He is third in minutes per game at 27.1 over that span, but has needed 16.9 shots to score 18.5 points per game (44.1% FG), is getting to the line only 3.1 times per game and isn’t spacing the floor, as defenses haven’t respect his 3-pointer, which is falling at just 27.1% in his last 11 games.

Brooks is stamped as the incumbent Wolves Killer™, but given that he hasn’t played against these Wolves (he has missed all four games this year), it’s hard to judge how he figures to play against them. Russell is likely to match up with him, possibly opening up an opportunity for Brooks to impact the game with his slashing. He’s a guy who can make you want to throw something at the TV if you’re a Wolves fan, but also if you’re a Grizzlies fan, depending on the night.

Memphis is No. 1 in the NBA in bench minutes per game (19.8), which is telling of Jenkins’ acumen as a coach. Their production has been more inconsistent from player-to-player, yet Jenkins keeps pressing the right buttons at the right times and it leads to wins. That’s a legitimate weapon to monitor in this series.


X-Factors

Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Minnesota: D’Angelo Russell

There is no team D’Angelo Russell has enjoyed taking it to more this year than the Memphis Grizzlies. Let’s take a look at his 10 favorite opponents, sorted by most combined points + rebounds + assists.

No matter the date, location, or result, Russell’s performance against the Grizzlies has been incredibly steady. Russell has a knack for settling into his comfort zone in the midst of emotional chaos taking place around him. So, it should come as no surprise that some of the most emotional games Minnesota has played are against Memphis.

The table speaks for itself.

I asked Towns at Wolves practice Thursday about what it’s like to have someone like D-Lo by his side in these big moments.

“It’s huge to have a player you trust like that in the clutch moments. In the moments when you need a bucket really badly or you need a high IQ play. It’s why he’s here,” the three-time All-Star said. “He’s here to make those plays when we need him the most. Last game he not only did it for the fourth quarter, but he did it [for] one through four.”

Minnesota is going to need Russell to bring that same intensity and execution every night in this series.

I expect the Grizzlies to put size on D-Lo to try and be physical with him, assigning either Desmond Bane or De’Anthony Melton to guard him.

Where Russell has been successful is in pick-and-roll (PnR). Towns has largely been excellent at screening Russell open enough to get a defender on his back or pull up in the mid-range. Memphis’s perimeter defenders have struggled to contain Minnesota’s ball-handlers this year, with Russell chief among them. Given that Memphis plays mostly drop coverage, D-Lo should have ample opportunities to impact the game with his scoring.

D-Lo has his work cut out for him going into such a hostile environment, but there is no one better equipped on the Wolves to rise above any emotional adversity the Wolves may create for themselves than the man who has ice coursing through his veins.

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

Memphis: Brandon Clarke

Minnesota could gain a huge advantage if Memphis strays away from its heavy bench minute allotment and Brandon Clarke becomes a casualty of it.

Clarke has made a major impact in three of four games against the Wolves this season. His aggressive, violent rim-running and offensive rebounding present a problem the Wolves can’t seem to figure out.

When he isn’t catching lobs and throwing down thunderous dunks, Clarke has the ability to catch the ball on the short roll and quickly spray it out to corner shooters, a glaring weakness of Minnesota’s defense. Considering that Adams can’t do that and JJJ may not be used that frequently as a roll man, Clarke’s PnR prowess may become an important variable in the calculus of deciding this series.

He announced his candidacy as a Wolves Killer™ in the first matchup of the year, when he dropped 20 points and nine rebounds, including five offensive rebounds he turned into 10 points (four of which came in OT).

It will be imperative for players such as Vanderbilt and Prince to place focus on boxing him out on every single shot that goes up while he’s on the floor, otherwise he’ll find a way to get his hands on the ball and turn stops into second chance points.


What Decides The Series?

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Half-Court Execution

The playoffs are all about heart and executing in the half-court. Simple as that.

This is the biggest arena in which Minnesota has an advantage over Memphis. Since January 1, Finch has conducted his harmonious half-court symphony better than any coach in the NBA. The Wolves’ 1.03 points per half-court play is tops in the league, while the Grizzlies’ mark of 0.95 is 22nd — worst among all Western Conference playoff teams; Toronto (0.92, 26th) is the only playoff team behind them.

In that same window, Memphis is first in fewest percentage of plays in the half-court (73.9%), first in offensive rebound percentage (33.9%) and first in put-back points per miss (0.29), per Cleaning the Glass.

Minnesota’s three-headed monster of Towns, Edwards and Russell enables Finch to position them all over the floor and run different sets out of identical positioning, most commonly in horns configurations. Take these two plays in the fourth, for instance.

The ability to run different plays using the same setup keeps the defense guessing and enables all three players to play off of each other’s success. You can run the same play to try and keep a guy hot or use him as a decoy to free up one of the other two.

Finch turns to horns sets in crunch time because he wants to live and die with his best players — the sign of a smart coach.

While Ja is excellent off the dribble, I feel confident the Wolves can contain him, especially as a playmaker. Morant is third in drives per game (20.9) and first in points per game on drives (14.8), but passes on just 28.5 percent of his drives and commits nearly as many turnovers (1.4) as he converts assists (1.6) on the drive.

He isn’t used to defenses forcing him to be a playmaker. Morant is 6-foot-3, much shorter than the Luka Dončić and Paul George types — 6-foot-8 ball-handlers that can see over the top of Minnesota’s high wall coverage. To Minnesota’s credit he has struggled with the length of the Wolves’ perimeter defenders and they have forced him off course into ice and trap coverages in dead spots on the floor.

The All-NBA-guard-to-be is going to have to find answers for that rather quickly.

Look for Bane to play a major role with the ball in his hands as an initiator when Morant is trapped. A 44% 3-point shooter, he is excellent at attacking closeouts and making the right decision on the drive from there. However, it would be better for Minnesota to force the ball into Bane’s hands more, because Morant doesn’t effectively space the floor without the ball in hands (33.6% from 3 on catch-and-shoots) and Bane is Memphis’s best catch-and-shooter at 44.0%.

The top two priorities for Minnesota will be cutting off Morant’s drives and running Bane off the line. If they can do that consistently throughout the series, we’ll have playoff basketball in Minneapolis in May for the second time in nearly 20 years.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Rebounding

Minnesota should be terrified of Memphis’s offensive rebounding ability. The Grizzlies could render any defensive adjustments the Wolves make useless simply because of how dominant Adams and company are on the offensive glass.

The last time these two teams met, Memphis had TWENTY-SIX (!) offensive rebounds on 50 missed shots, good for an offensive rebounding percentage of 52.0%. That was the most offensive boards a team had game this season by three rebounds. Memphis had 27 second chance points and shot 40 free throws, too.

Yet, somehow, Minnesota won because they executed in the half-court down the stretch of the game and held Memphis to 9/31 (29.0%) from 3, while shooting 16/42 (38.1%) from 3 themselves.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Minnesota go small and play five out in hopes that Jenkins takes Adams out of the game. If that happens and the Wolves can defend and gang rebound the way they did against the Clippers in the play-in game, they can survive. But if Towns gets into foul trouble trying to battle on the glass (especially on the offensive end to try and make up for any potential defensive rebounding shortcomings), the Wolves are going to dig themselves a demoralizing hole that will be difficult to get out of.

Minnesota out-rebounded the Clippers by 10 in the play-in game, but they rank 26th in offensive rebounding rate — a far cry from Memphis’s No. 1 ranking.


LA Clippers v Minnesota Timberwolves - Play-In Tournament Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Prediction

In the words of our good friend Mike O’Hagan, bet against Anthony Edwards at your own peril.

Edwards stood atop the scorers table at Target Center after his epic 30-point postseason arrival, having done something no one in the league thought possible: prove the Wolves are a force to be reckoned with in the NBA Playoffs.

The effervescent 20-year-old kid from the Oakland City neighborhood of Atlanta is scared of no man, no moment, and no mountain to climb.

With one of the NBA’s most well-respected competitors and playoff veterans in Patrick Beverley empowering him every step of the way, Edwards carries himself in a manner that makes it impossible to believe he will fail.

The self-proclaimed “Black Jesus” isn’t just going to be putting on his blue suede shoes and walking in Memphis. He’s marching into town with a team of Wolves exuding a collective, indomitable confidence that is hungry to put Minnesota back on the map.

LA Clippers v Minnesota Timberwolves - Play-In Tournament Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Any doubters might want to start saying their prayers while they still can.

Wolves in 6 (+750).


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