2022 Playoffs: West First Round | Grizzlies (2) vs. Timberwolves (7)

Film Study: How Grizzlies' defense stepped up in Game 2 vs. Wolves

Breaking down key moments from Memphis' win before Game 3 on Thursday.

The Grizzlies’ defensive energy returned to its elite ways during Game 2 on Tuesday.

The Minnesota Timberwolves had the league’s second best offense (118.8 points scored per 100 possessions) over the last 12 weeks of the regular season. And they kept things rolling in Game 1 of their first round series against the Memphis Grizzlies, scoring 130 points on 107 possessions against what was the league’s sixth-ranked defense.

But Game 2 on Tuesday was a very different story. The Wolves scored just 96 on 103, just the second time in 26 games since the All-Star break that they were held under a point per possession. Three nights after losing home-court advantage, the Grizzlies looked like the team that really turned things around defensively after their first 19 games (they ranked last defensively when Ja Morant suffered a left knee injury on Nov. 26 and second from then on). Better effort and energy yielded better results. And for the Wolves, some of the damage was self-inflicted.

The key sequence came in the latter half of the second quarter, after a Naz Reid pick-and-pop 3 had the Wolves within five points. The Grizzlies didn’t exactly find a rhythm offensively, but by holding Minnesota scoreless over seven straight possessions, they put together a 9-0 run that would give them a double-digit lead for the rest of the night.

Within that seven-possession stretch were all the elements to create — considering the strength of the opponent — one of the Grizzlies’ best defensive performances of the season.

1. Help and rotate

On the Wolves’ first possession after that Reid 3-pointer, the Grizzlies were a bit scrambled in transition. But Brandon Clarke chased Malik Beasley off a corner 3 and Desmond Bane rotated over to stop Beasley’s drive. Taurean Prince got an in-rhythm 3-point attempt, but note how high Ja Morant jumped on his close-out …

Grizzlies defensive rotations

That’s trust (knowing that, if you rotate, your teammate will have your back) and effort. Morant might have put as much effort into that jump as he would on an alley-oop.

2. Switch and contain

According to Second Spectrum tracking, the Grizzlies switched 34% (22/63) of Minnesota ball screens in Game 2, up from 24% (17/70) in Game 1. Steven Adams playing less than three minutes had something to do with the increase. Adams failed to contain D’Angelo Russell on the game’s first possession, he picked up his second foul with 9:10 left in the first quarter, and that was that.

From then on, the Grizzlies played more mobile bigs. After Jaren Jackson Jr. put his team up eight with a step-back 3, he then switched the second of two screens for Anthony Edwards, flattening out the Minnesota offense …

Jaren Jackson Jr. switch

Jackson then switched Edwards’ screen for Patrick Beverley, stayed with Beverley’s drive, and forced him into a tough shot …

Patrick Beverley drive

A couple of possessions later, Clarke switched onto Edwards, kept him in front, and forced a tough, step-back 3 late in the shot clock. According to Second Spectrum, the Wolves were 8-for-30 (0-for-10 from 3-point range) in the last 12 seconds of the shot clock in Game 2, having shot 23-for-39 (9-for-20) in the last 12 seconds in Game 1.

3. Get back!

Minnesota was much more successful early in the clock, but the Grizzlies were able to force more late-clock situations than the Wolves would have liked. This has been the fastest-paced series of the first round, with both teams looking to run whenever they get the chance. And the Grizzlies’ fourth straight stop came when they scrambled back to stop a Minnesota break, putting out the fire and resetting their defense …

Grizzlies transition defense

A good defense begins in transition, and that transition defense led to another isolation, with Edwards losing his dribble against Clarke.

4. Self-infliction

The Wolves did help the Grizzlies out a little. The final stop of that seven-stretch sequence came with more switching, which led to a Jaden McDaniels catch against Xavier Tillman. And with plenty of time left on the shot clock, McDaniels (who made 28 pull-up jumpers in 70 games this season) settled for a contested, pull-up 20-footer …

Jaden McDaniels jumper

McDaniels wasn’t alone in regard to bad shots. Edwards (32.5% on off-the-dribble 3s this season) missed a step-back 3 over Jackson (with plenty of time left on the clock) early in the first quarter, and Prince (29 pull-up makes all season long) missed a step-back mid-range jumper over a Tillman contest (with 16 on the shot clock) early in the second.

More Towns, more Tillman?

That game-changing seven-possession sequence came with Karl-Anthony Towns (who picked up his third foul with 7:08 left in the second quarter) off the floor. The Wolves will obviously be in better shape in Game 3 on Thursday (7:30 ET, TNT) if Towns can stay out of foul trouble and play 40-ish minutes. Thus far in this series, they’ve scored 49.9 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (120.4) than they have with him off the floor (70.5).

But the Grizzlies may have stumbled upon something with Tillman, who played 21 minutes in Game 2 after not seeing the floor in Game 1. He’s more mobile than Adams, and was able to stay with a Towns drive early in the second quarter …

Xavier Tillman defnse

On the next possession, he stayed with Russell on a pick-and-roll and forced a turnover.

Of course, if the Grizzlies are switching with their non-Adams bigs, the Wolves can look to get Towns matched up against guards. There was one fourth-quarter possession on Tuesday where Jackson switched a screen, leaving Morant guarding Towns. Edwards didn’t get him the ball, but Towns was able to get a rebound and put-back over the Memphis point guard. If Towns does get post catches against smaller defenders, the Grizzlies’ ability to rotate out of double-teams will be critical.

The Grizzlies are now 17-0 when they’ve held their opponent under a point per possession. Keeping the Minnesota offense down for a second straight game will be difficult. After dropping Game 1, the Grizzlies have shown that they can play with sustained effort and urgency on that end of the floor.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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