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

Series preview: Grizzlies-Wolves won't be short on rising stars to watch

Upstart Memphis racked up the league's second-best record, but don't sleep on what Minnesota's young, talented crew brings into the playoffs.

Minnesota must stop Ja Morant’s many forays into the paint if it hopes to defeat Memphis.

Grizzlies-Wolves series coverage
• 2022 NBA playoffs schedule

We’ve heard plenty about Memphis’ incredible record of 20-4 without Ja Morant on the floor, and Tuesday we saw Minnesota’s capabilities when an opponent takes out All-Star and leading scorer Karl-Anthony Towns. Largely ineffective in the team’s 109-104 Play-In Tournament victory over the LA Clippers, Towns fouled out with 7:34 left to play, leaving Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell to carry the Timberwolves to the playoffs for just the second time in the last 18 seasons.

Minnesota passed a significant test just to claw into the postseason. The brash, young Memphis Grizzlies represent an even tougher task in this upcoming matchup between teams short on postseason experience, but heavy on ambition, athleticism, and talent.

Led by Morant, the Grizzlies birthed the next generation of “Grit and Grind” by steamrolling through opponents this season on the way to capturing the NBA’s second-best record (56-26) and winning 19 of their last 22 games at FedExForum. In doing so, Memphis became one of just three teams to seize at least 30 home wins in 2021-22. Two of those wins at FedExForum came courtesy of Minnesota. But once Memphis hit the road to face the Timberwolves, the tables turned.

The Wolves and Grizzlies have some similarities, roster-wise. Which team will win this series?

The four-game, regular-season series between these teams was a 2-2 tie, with Russell averaging 31.0 points to lead Minnesota and Morant averaging 20 ppg. Morant missed a total of 25 games in 2021-22, but he participated in every matchup against the Timberwolves in a series where all but one game was decided by eight points or fewer. The teams haven’t played since Feb. 24, when Russell and Towns combined for 59 points in a 119-114 victory.

So, don’t be fooled by Minnesota’s seventh seeding. In fact, the Timberwolves are just as brash and talented as the Grizzlies, which should make for a physical and competitive series.

Three things to watch

1. How Memphis defends Towns: LA Clippers coach Tyronn Lue provided somewhat of a blueprint on Tuesday, utilizing Nicolas Batum on Towns to take away the perimeter before doubling with Ivica Zubac below the free-throw line. That strategy (and foul trouble) resulted in Towns shooting 0 of 7 in the first half for two points, and he picked up four fouls. Towns didn’t knock down his first bucket of the second half until the 7:05 mark of the third quarter. The Grizzlies likely won’t need to resort LA’s strategy with a Kia Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steven Adams in the frontcourt. Towns is Minnesota’s leading scorer, but he didn’t lead the Timberwolves in that department during any of the team’s matchups against Memphis in the regular season.

2. The Pat Beverley effect: Beverley scored just seven points against the Clippers, but we all saw the effect the scrappy veteran had on the outcome of the game. Beverley has played in 59 career playoff games and knows all the tricks and hustle moves that irritate opponents into game-changing mistakes. If you’ve ever heard the expression, “you’ve got the right one,” then you know that’s what Beverley’s got on his hands facing these Grizzlies. Dillon Brooks, Desmond Bane, and Morant aren’t afraid to mix it up, and they’ll chirp back and forth with Beverley all game. The key for them is to not let Beverley’s antics negatively affect their performance. Same goes for Beverley and the Timberwolves because you better believe the Grizzlies have frustrated plenty of opponents with their trash talk. Just ask LeBron James.

3. Talent galore: Going into this series, you’ll hear plenty about highlight machines Morant and Anthony Edwards, along with Towns. But don’t forget about Bane, Jackson, Brooks, and Russell. Russell has dropped 30 points or more in three games this season against the Grizzlies, and we all saw what he did to lift Minnesota to the postseason. Bane, 23, is a candidate for Kia Most Improved Player honors and one of the league’s most lethal 3-point shooters. Jackson, 22, is a standout defender while Brooks, 26, is widely considered the heart and soul of the team. In all, there’s a lot more star power to this matchup than you think.

Number to know

57.6 — The Grizzlies averaged 57.6 points in the paint, 4.3 more than any other team this season and the third most in the 26 seasons for which points in the paint have been tracked. Their 56.9 points in the paint per 100 possessions were the second most over those 26 seasons, topped only by the 59.8 per 100 scored by the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets. With their dominance in the paint, they had the league’s fourth-ranked offense, despite ranking 26th in mid-range field goal percentage, 17th in 3-point percentage, and 28th in the percentage of their shots that came from 3-point range.

The Grizzlies’ attack was led by Ja Morant, who ranked third with 20.9 drives per game and led the league with 16.6 points in the paint, a mark that’s only been topped by Shaquille O’Neal (eight times), Giannis Antetokounmpo (three times) and Zion Williamson (20.3 last season) over these last 26 years. But they also got shots inside via transition (they led the league with 17.7 fast break points per game) and via the glass (they led the league with 18.7 second chance points per game), with Steven Adams leading the league in offensive rebounding percentage (15.9%).

What will matter most in the first-round series between Memphis and Minnesota?

All three of those numbers (points in the paint, fast break points and second chance points) regularly go down (both per game and as a percentage of total points scored) in the playoffs. So the Grizzlies may need to be better from the perimeter, and the Wolves ranked seventh in the (lowest) percentage of their opponents’ shots that came in the paint (46%). But Minnesota will need to be better in regard both in transition and on the glass. The Wolves ranked 28th in both transition points allowed per game (21.5) and defensive rebounding percentage (70.6%) in the regular season.

— John Schuhmann

The pick

The home team won every game during the regular-season series, and the Grizzlies own homecourt advantage here. But there’s more than just that going on here. Memphis squad tasted the playoffs for the first time last season and entered 2021-22 battle-tested and hungrier. For all the youth and talent on the roster, the Grizzlies play smart, poised, hard-nosed ball and they have more playmakers than Minnesota. Grizzlies in 6.

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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