Let’s make something clear before we begin: playoff basketball is different than regular season basketball. Therefore, assuming regular season matchups will be exactly the same in the postseason is risky.
With that being said, let’s dive into the regular season matchups between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Memphis Grizzlies, which the teams split 2-2, and see what we’re in store for in the first round.
General Regular Season Takeaways
A very important note: known Wolves-killer Dillon Brooks (shooting 53% from three in nine career games against the Wolves) missed all four matchups against the Wolves this season. He isn’t just a flamethrower though, he’s a good perimeter defender. Brooks and Desmond Bane will guard D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards, which should allow Ja Morant to hide on Patrick Beverley. With Steven Adams taking Karl-Anthony Towns, Jaren Jackson Jr. will be able to play in his roaming role that he’s thrived in all season long (league-leading 2.3 blocks per game).
In four games against the Timberwolves, Morant averaged 20 PPG and 6.5 AST on 13.5% shooting from three. Although Beverley can certainly disrupt him, it’s unlikely Morant continues to struggle in this series.
Russell could very well make or break the Wolves in this series. He averaged 31 PPG against the Grizzlies this year, which would give the Wolves a massive boost if he can carry that success into the playoffs. However, the return of Brooks will make things more difficult for Russell and the Wolves.
Because each of their four matchups had their own unique set of circumstances, let’s just try and find one takeaway from each game that could arise in the playoffs.
February 24, 2022 - Guarding Morant in PnR
Patrick Beverley started this game guarding Morant (as he did in other matchups), and the Wolves hedged on most PnR actions in which Morant was the ball handler. Many times this action involved Morant, Beverley, Adams and Towns.
On this play, Morant sees Beverley jump the screen and takes advantage.
I’m sweating thinking about KAT getting in foul trouble (pretty much guaranteed at this point), forcing Naz Reid into this action for an extended period of time.
We’ll see this action extensively in this series. The Wolves have the personnel to fight through screens with Beverley, Jaden McDaniels, Edwards and maybe even Jarred Vanderbilt, but the next level of the defense is a different story. As mentioned, we can safely assume KAT will be in foul trouble at some point during this series. That leaves Reid as the second line of defense, which (again, for an extended period of time) is nerve-wracking. I’d expect plenty of help from whoever isn’t directly involved in the action, which creates an opportunity for open corner threes. That’s scary if Bane is taking those shots.
Speaking of Bane, he’s one of the Grizzlies’ two-way studs. He was tasked with guarding Edwards and Russell in the regular season, and can certainly do it again. This time around he’ll have Brooks next to him, too.
Russell was guarded by rookie Ziaire Williams on Feb. 24, who started the game because Brooks didn’t play. Russell scored 37 points in the game. Williams torched the Wolves on offense, scoring 21 points on 64% shooting. Minnesota was lazy in transition, which allowed him to get a bunch of easy looks in the first half. This lack of discipline from the Wolves is hopefully just a regular season thing.
January 13, 2022 - Jaren Jackson Jr. Wreaking Havoc Inside
The Wolves’ stars carried the load in this game, as each of the big three finished with at least 25 points. No other player scored in double figures for the Wolves, which is probably why they lost 108-116.
Edwards came out the gates firing, scoring 13 points in the opening quarter. Unlike the Feb. 24 matchup, Ant was dialed in.
While the Wolves’ stars showed up for this game, so did the Grizzlies’. Their best players, which apparently includes worlds-best rebounder John Konchar (17 boards in this game), led them to victory.
In addition to Konchar’s input, it was the JJJ show. He poured in 20 points on 60% shooting, while blocking five shots. Jackson’s help defense and rim protection will be incredibly impactful throughout the upcoming playoff series.
Due to Adams being out, Jackson Jr. guarded Towns for the majority of the game. Jackson Jr. isn’t as physically imposing as Adams, but is much more versatile. He probably does better in his roaming role, but is capable of guarding players like KAT.
Jack Borman discussed that matchup on Twitter and in his tremendous series preview:
KAT figures to be much more involved as a shooter against Memphis if Taylor Jenkins puts Jaren Jackson Jr. on him.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) April 15, 2022
JJJ is a much better weak side defender and rim defender than 1-on-1 defender against someone like Towns. I expect to see Finch put him in actions like these ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/MMibjz6DE9
Assuming the Grizzlies keep Jackson Jr. in his roaming role to begin, it’ll be interesting to see how, and if, those plans change. Something as simple as foul trouble for Adams could lead to Taylor Jenkins being forced to put Jackson Jr. on KAT, which could be a game-changer. Or, as Jack mentioned, Finch could scheme some things up to pull Jackson Jr. from the paint.
I’m starting to get nervous when KAT’s in the paint, as it increases his odds of picking up fouls while going for rebounds, hooking his defender with an arm, or plowing over well-positioned defenders. He’s a great post player, but his lack of discipline is extra concerning in the playoffs. Getting him out on the perimeter allows him to play to his shooting strength, hopefully limit fouls, and maybe keep Jackson Jr. from dominating the paint.
However often he squares off against Adams, he won’t be able to out-physical/bully him. That seems like a perfect recipe for KAT to get frustrated and lose his composure, which may generate plenty of his patented “KAT falls,” in which he takes an out-of-control shot, crashes to the ground, and then gets caught lagging behind the play (probably complaining about not getting a foul call).
This Jan. 13 game could be representative of what to expect in this playoff series. If the Wolves allow Jackson Jr. to lurk and hunt down shots, he could wreak havoc on the Wolves’ offense.
November 20, 2021 - Wolves Stars Shine Bright
This was the game the Wolves won by 43, which started with a 17-point first quarter from Edwards. He made five threes in the first 12 minutes, hitting all five of his attempts.
Not only Brooks, but De’Anthony Melton, was out for this game. That created an opportunity for the Wolves’ wings to have a game. Kyle Anderson absorbed the Edwards assignment to start the game, with Bane taking over while he sat. Bane started the game on Russell, but was shifted around.
14 and 15-point third quarters from Russell and Towns, respectively, really put an exclamation point on this game. If the Wolves get 72 points from their big three like they did in this game, it’ll take pressure off the role players and allow them to play freely.
The Grizzlies’ wing injuries was the beginning and end of this one, even though Bane did his part to make up for it by scoring 21 points and making four three-pointers.
November 8, 2021 - Physicality and Rebounding Can Swing Games
Brandon Clarke showed how he could impact the game with physicality and hustle in this one, finishing with 20 points and 5 offensive rebounds. He’s more than capable of mucking things up for the Wolves in this series if they don’t match his intensity.
One of Vanderbilt’s many jobs in this series will be keeping pace with Clarke. Similar to Vanderbilt, it will be interesting to see how Clarke is used considering his lack of shooting.
Both teams can space the floor well, but there’s an unfortunately long track record of non-shooters struggling to stay on the court in the playoffs. With adequate shooting around both Clarke and Vanderbilt, as well as an increased need for intensity and rebounding, it seems like they’ll both have a chance to make an impact.
Whoever takes control of the paint, on both offense and defense, will have a major edge in this series. Morant can score in bunches near the cup, and has shooters around him to kick to if he’s able to drive and distribute. Keeping him away from the basket will be pivotal for the Wolves.
On the other side of the ball, Finch and the Wolves will need to find ways to draw Jackson Jr. out of the paint. He can dominate if given the chance.
It’s the playoffs. There can be no complacency, lack of discipline, loss of focus, etc. The Wolves showed they can lock in during their play-in win. In order for them to compete they’ll need to keep engaged and stay composed.
If they do that, they absolutely have a chance.