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How Should Minnesota Expect Memphis Counter After Game 1?

Minnesota is off to a good start, but must think ahead to stay ahead

NBA: Playoffs-Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Christine Tannous-USA TODAY Sports

As fun as Game 1 was for the Timberwolves, and it WAS a lot of fun, the NBA Playoffs are not a single elimination tournament. They are more of a marathon than a sprint, and the best-of-seven series allows teams to have a bad night and still right the ship. It is also commonly referred to as a way to make sure that, health permitting, the true best team in each series advances.

This setup also allows teams and coaches to take a punch, regroup, and adjust. The Minnesota Timberwolves undoubtedly threw the first punch with their Game 1 victory in Memphis over the second-seeded Grizzlies, but now the real chess match begins. I think this part of basketball might be my favorite part of the NBA. These longer series provide us with so many adjustments and tweaks, and it is fascinating to take note of who adjusts firsts, and which team can stay one step ahead of their opponent.

While I’ve seen many people mention that Memphis stole Game 1 from Utah last year before losing four straight in an effort to downplay the threat of an upset here, I don’t think those are real parallels. Minnesota causes real schematic problems to threaten Memphis in a way that I don’t think they ever truly did for Utah last year.

Since Game 1 ended on Saturday, Taylor Jenkins and his staff have surely been going through film to find an edge or two that they can leverage better in Game 2. Conversely, Chris Finch, Micah Nori, and the rest of the Timberwolves staff have no doubt been trying to stay one step ahead of Jenkins.

Both coaches started the game coaching roughly the same way they did in the regular season. In a way, the first half was used for each coach to get a feel for the matchup and figure out how they wanted to play things.

Chris Finch was the first one to make a real, obvious adjustment in the second half of Game 1 when he made what is often the playoff adjustment most teams make — he played his best players more. It sounds simple, but playing Karl-Anthony Towns 42 minutes (33.5mpg) and Anthony Edwards 40 minutes (34.2mpg) is a good way to give your team a boost. That is twice as true when Naz Reid seemingly was unplayable on Saturday. The Timberwolves probably won’t want to play Towns and Edwards that many minutes every game, but that’s not an abnormal minutes load for star players in the playoffs, and especially not when there are two days between games.

NBA: Playoffs-Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Christine Tannous-USA TODAY Sports

That would be the glaringly obvious first step for Taylor Jenkins, but I’m not sure it’s quite as simple as it seems on the surface.

Jenkins surely would have played Jaren Jackson Jr. more than the 24 minutes he did if JJJ had been able to stay out of foul trouble. Jackson played poorly on Saturday, but his seven blocks in 24 minutes shows just how impactful he can be even when his shot isn’t falling (4-13fg).

Ja Morant looks pretty healthy, but he did just miss quite a bit of time after tweaking the same knee he injured in November. It is totally plausible that the medical staff isn’t comfortable with Morant playing 40 minutes a night, yet. I’m not a doctor, nor am I comfortable speculating on injury status. I only bring that up in order to sort of cut Taylor Jenkins some slack, since he is a perennial Coach of the Year candidate, and I am an average dude pounding a keyboard from the couch watching Jayson Tatum and Kyrie Irving duke it out.

Beyond that, the elephant in the room on this note is that the Grizzlies starters got drilled on Saturday (primarily in the 1st quarter), and their bench players kind of kept them in the game. Desmond Bane finished neutral in terms of +/-, but every other starter was -13 or worse. On the flip side, the majority of the Grizzlies bench finished around neutral, or slightly positive.

NBA: Playoffs-Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Christine Tannous-USA TODAY Sports

Our intuition tells us that simply playing their best players more would be helpful, because why wouldn’t it be, but it’s probably a much tougher call on the bench when the flow of the game is telling you that the starters aren’t playing as well as your bench is. That is an even more difficult call to make when you’ve relied on your bench and depth in the regular season to the extent the Grizzlies and Jenkins have. I’d probably, at a minimum, try to match the Desmond Bane (who is awesome) and/or Dillon Brooks minutes as closely to the Ant/D’Lo minutes as possible, still.

So, if the “play Ja and JJJ more” button isn’t available/right, what’s next?

In general, there are two different ways coaches can react/adjust after a loss.

One is for coaches to simply ride the wave and double down on what got them to this point. With Steven Adams being the topic of most of the discussion right now, that would mean doubling down on Steven Adams playing heavy minutes, and leaning even more into the physicality and “nasty” that is such a staple of who the Grizzlies are. It’s leaning into mucking the game up and trying to rattle the Timberwolves. A large portion of Memphis’ half-court offense in the regular season was a result of offensive rebounding, and there is not a better offensive rebounder in the NBA than Adams. This is the “stick to your guns, just do it better” option.

The other option is to make a tactical change. In this case, that would probably mean significantly cutting Adams’ minutes in favor of Brandon Clarke. In theory, this could make things more difficult for Minnesota on both ends of the floor. When Memphis is on offense, Clarke makes it tough for Minnesota because he can punish their high-wall PnR coverage off of the short-roll in a way that Adams just can’t.

He is equipped with a reliable floater that could force the Timberwolves to reconsider how they want to cover the Morant-Clarke PnR. On the other end of the floor, it’s a little more simple in the sense that Steven Adams just can’t guard Karl-Anthony Towns one-on-one like he was asked to in Game 1, and Clarke has a little bit better chance of succeeding in that spot.

It’s easy for me to say from the couch, but I would lean heavily into option two if I were Memphis, but I don’t really expect that to be the case. In general, coaches tend to favor the “play tougher, execute better” approach/adjustment first, and then move to the tactical change as a means of last resort. This is especially true for a coach like, say, Mike Budenholzer, who Taylor Jenkins was an assistant for before getting shot with Memphis.

Even in a tough matchup, Jenkins can expect to get more from Adams than he did in Game 1. I do not think this is a series where Adams should play much, but even given that, Memphis can assume they’ll get better production than 0 points and 3 rebounds (1 OREB) in Game 2 with a normal number of minutes. That’s about as bad as Adams can possibly play, and even in a bad matchup should give better production in Game 2.

The other aspect of this is that Jenkins probably doesn’t want to go away from his team’s identity after one loss, which is understandable. Honestly, that would feel like an overreaction. Memphis is tough, physical, and just flat-out mean on the court. That’s who they are, and I’m guessing they will lean into that as the series goes on to see if they can get under Minnesota’s skin and rattle them. Adams isn’t a dirty player or anything, but he is a physical presence in the paint, and that can wear on opponents.

In that case, there’s really only one guy I have concerns about for Minnesota, and it’s Karl-Anthony Towns. KAT has shown to be able to flush away a bad game and come back strong in the next one, but his ability to keep his composure mid-game hasn’t always been there. Minnesota will need him to keep his composure during the game as well as he appears to shrug off a bad game after the fact.

Ant is certainly candidate number one to get beat up a little bit just because he figures to see a lot of Dillon Brooks for the remainder of this series. Brooks will be a good test for Ant, but I think we have seen enough to know that Ant doesn’t get rattled by physical play or trash talk. In fact, he thrives off of it. Case in point, after Brooks drilled a three in Game 1, he talked all sorts of trash to Edwards going back down the floor, only for Ant to catch the ball on the wing and knife his way to the rim for an easy layup. The kid loves the trash talk, and is seemingly impossible to fluster.

Aside from that, though, I’m not concerned about the Wolves ability to keep their cool. D’Angelo Russell is a cold-blooded killer in large part because he is just so steady and so even-keeled. He constantly talks about never getting too high or too low, and that’s an attitude that he backs up with his play on the court. Russell can sometimes be sped up physically due to his athletic limitations, but you’re not going to shake his confidence or get him to act out of character because of some physical play or trash talk. Russell isn’t a perfect player, but his ethos and steadiness is exactly what you’d want from your lead guard.

The rest of the guys, even Patrick Beverley, like to engage in some shit-talking, but in general they don’t let it impact their play. There’s a difference between embracing the fight and not backing down, and letting the physicality of the game get you out of your rhythm and game. If KAT can control his emotions, they’ll be fine.

While that comes off as confident for Minnesota, the KAT piece does loom incredibly large. This isn’t a bench player who figures to see 10 minutes a game in this series, it’s one of the franchise cornerstones. Memphis will be more physical with him, and even if Adams does continue to play his normal minutes, KAT will surely be doubled more than he was in Game 1. That’s frustrated him in the past.

Now, the low-hanging fruit here is for Memphis to find a way to keep Adams on the floor by finding a better way to deploy him. I like to overreact, so I’d probably just flip Adams and Clarke’s spots in the rotation (imagine Naz Reid trying to handle Steven Adams), but I do expect Jenkins to find a happy medium. The simple answer is for the Grizzlies to steal the defensive gameplan from pretty much every other team in the NBA and put a smaller player on Towns, with Adams roaming the paint away from Jarred Vanderbilt. This would naturally lead to Jaren Jackson Jr. getting the Towns assignment, which could lead to an elegant foul fest between the two players.

It should be noted that there are two ends to the floor, and while Clarke is a fine defender in his own right, he doesn’t protect the rim the same way Adams does, either, which surely plays into the desire to keep Adams in the game.

Anyways, that seems like the logical middle-ground for this chess match to start, so how can Minnesota counter it?

If Finch wants to keep Vanderbilt on the floor (he will) for many of the same reasons Memphis wants to keep Adams on the floor, it’s up to Vanderbilt to remain active on the offensive end and make them pay for not guarding him. He has got to be active as a screener, considering whoever he is screening will have no help on the other side. Getting Malik Beasley on the floor and having Vando set a litany of screens for Beas on the weak-side could yield numerous open 3s. This is a skill that Draymond Green has mastered, and has made him a threat away from the ball on offense when teams disregard him.

The other way for Vanderbilt to contribute to the offense is similar to how Adams contributes. Offensive rebounding. Adams will have size on Vanderbilt to grab rebounds in their area, but Vando is one of the best in the league at grabbing board outside his normal area. His quickness can be an advantage for him on the glass to beat Adams to the spot.

Besides that, I’d expect to see even more Malik Beasley minutes in Game 2 than we did in Game 1. Putting Beasley on the floor makes it much, much harder to double Towns. With Beasley on the floor, Towns can quickly get rid of the ball when the double comes, and trust that it will find its way to Minnesota’s sharpshooter. Beasley’s shooting prowess causes so many problems for defenses, and this is just another example of that.

The other option is to remove Vanderbilt from the game in favor of Taurean Prince or Jaden McDaniels. This is the “you played our guy off the floor, so we’re going to play yours off, too” counter. Vanderbilt’s rebounding is a borderline necessity with Adams on the floor, but the flip side is that Vando’s offense is one of the only things keeping Adams in this series. The added shooting, and capable off-the-dribble game from TP and Jaden is not something Adams can deal with, and we just saw what happens when he guards KAT on his own. These types of cuts and flashes are not things that Memphis should want to live with.

The other issue the TP/Jaden alignment causes for Memphis is that it makes it much harder to bring a double on Towns. There isn’t anyone to leave on the perimeter, and their rotations out of the double will have to be perfect. It would at least tempt Memphis to leave Jaren Jackson Jr. alone with KAT, which would surely result in one of the two guys ending up in foul trouble, I’m just not sure which one.

In essence, there’s some low-hanging fruit for Taylor Jenkins, but there are still some tough questions that need to be answered, which will inevitably lead to the Wolves needing to find a way to respond. This is a long ways from over, and one game doesn’t decide an entire series. The Wolves punched first, though, which is always the better place to be. Now, it’s up to the Wolves players to keep their cool, and it’s up to Finch to keep the team one step ahead of the Grizzlies schematically. This coaching staff is much, much smarter than I am, and I’d expect them to be ready for the Adams-on-Vando alignment one way or another.