It’s been a while for both teams.
The last time the Minnesota Timberwolves made the playoffs was in 2018. They were a young team that was boosted by the smash-mouth presence of Jimmy Butler. The last time the Memphis Grizzlies were elite was back in 2015 when they were still known as the beloved Grit-and-Grind Grizz.
The cast of characters and play style of both teams have changed in this opening round clash.
The still-young Timberwolves have built a top 10 offense this year led by Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards. Towns is averaging 24.6 points per game, building a reputation as the best shooting big man in the league. Edwards was already a beast as a rookie. He’s even better this season, scoring 21.3 points per game.
The Grizzlies aren’t ground-bound anymore. They’re flying up high with the rest of the elite teams in the league. For a good stretch this season, they looked like the second-best (and most entertaining) team in the league, zooming up and down the court. Ja Morant set the tone of this new-look Grizz squad, all while upping his line this year to nearly 28-6-7.
Most compelling storyline
As much as both teams have improved from last season, they still have so much growing to do. They’re both relatively inexperienced when it comes to postseason play. Both the Grizz and Wolves have only one playoff appearance each in the past four seasons. That’s what makes this series exciting. Which one of them can grow up faster in the playoffs?
There’s more pressure on the Grizzlies coming into the series. They’re a 56-win team that has to live up to higher expectations of them as one of the best teams in the regular season. As much as the onus is on Morant to play at an even higher level in the playoffs, the rest of the team also needs to step their game up. Last season, Morant averaged 30 points and eight assists, but Memphis was still booted out in five games by the Utah Jazz.
The Grizzlies proved that they can win without Morant, losing only five of the 25 games he sat out this season. That’s one of the reasons they’re considered one of the top teams in the league. The emphasis is on “team.” They not only stayed afloat during Morant’s absence, but they cemented their status with exceptional performances from everyone on the roster.
If there’s one team with the firepower and speed to keep up with the Grizzlies, though, it’s the Timberwolves. Minnesota has proven they can beat Memphis. Their season series is evened up at 2-2. The Grizzlies’ worst loss this season was when they were trounced by the Timberwolves by 43 points back in November.
Towns has to be better in his second postseason appearance for Minnesota. In 2018, he only averaged a paltry 15 points, even against the smaller Houston Rockets. If he can play to at least his regular-season average, the Wolves have a puncher’s chance to pull off the upset against the higher-seeded Grizz.
Keep an eye on…
As much as all eyes will be on Morant, Towns, and Edwards in this series, Desmond Bane and D’Angelo Russell will also command some attention. These two supporting players could steal the spotlight during key games of the series.
In his second year in the league, Bane has played himself into contention for Most Improved Player. He doubled his scoring average and 3-point shooting averages to live up to his potential as a deadly outside threat. Bane played big for the Grizzlies when Morant was out for stretches. He will definitely be called on to play a more significant role in the playoffs.
As for Russell, he’s willingly taken a backseat to Towns and Edwards, settling into a playmaking role for the Timberwolves this season. Russell has been taking the lead against the Grizzlies, though. He’s been the best player in their season series, averaging 31 points and nearly seven assists in four games against Memphis. If he can continue to score and create at an elite level, that gives Minnesota a three-headed attack that’s nearly impossible to stop.
Another player to watch out for is Jaren Jackson, Jr., whom my fellow NBA.com Philippines writer Jon Rodriguez picked as Defensive Player of the Year. I thought it was a hipster pick until I dug deeper into the numbers. He’s second in blocks per game with 2.3, averaging 54.5 percent of his team’s blocks. He allows only an average of 25.5 points when he’s manning the paint. JJJ is a legitimate rim protector.
Jackson, Jr. has to roam beyond the shaded area, though, when defending a three-level scorer like Towns. There’s no doubt Jackson can hold his own in the paint. But he has to be able to keep in step with one of the best shooting and driving big men in the league. If he can shut down Towns, this is going to be an easy series for Memphis.
The Timberwolves lead the league in pace, averaging 101.5 possessions per 48 minutes. The Grizzlies aren’t that far behind in fourth place, averaging a shade above 100. Both teams can win a scoring race. What they have to prove is their ability to win when the game slows down and turns into a slugfest.
Minnesota has improved its defense rating from 28th last season to a respectable 13th this season. The 111 points they give up per 100 possessions has to improve even further in the playoffs to be able to earn crucial wins against the Grizzlies.
Ironically, Memphis has to revert to the Grit-and-Grind mentality of previous Grizzlies’ teams to win. They’ve lived off forcing turnovers and getting out into the open court during the regular season. In this series, though, they have to slow things down to stifle the Timberwolves’ attack.