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Why do the Timberwolves match up so well with Memphis?

And how could they pull an upset in their first-round playoff series with Grizzlies?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota Timberwolves guard Patrick Beverley (22) celebrates a basket by forward Jarred Vanderbilt (8) (not pictured) against the Memphis Grizzlies in the third quarter Feb. 24, 2022, at Target Center in Minneapolis.
David Berding / USA Today Sports

The Minneapolis Timberwolves are heavy betting underdogs heading into their first-round NBA playoff series against the Grizzlies, which opens with Game 1 at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Memphis. That’s to be expected in a No. 2 vs. No. 7 matchup.

Still, given the head-to-head results this season, Minnesota has reason to enter the best-of-seven series with confidence.

The Timberwolves won two of the four matchups, taking both games at Target Center. Both the losses in Memphis came down to the wire, including one in which Minnesota led by 16 points with 7 minutes, 30 seconds to play before falling in overtime.

The Timberwolves simply seem to match up well with Memphis. Here’s a look at why, and what needs to happen for Minnesota to have success in this series:

Stop the 3

It’s one of the stats that defined the Timberwolves’ success this season. In their 46 wins, the Wolves held opponents to 31.4 percent shooting from deep. In 36 losses, opponents buried 40.1 percent of their 3-point attempts.

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The general weakness in Minnesota’s “high wall” defensive pick-and-roll scheme is the ease with which some opponents have been able to generate open 3-point shots, particularly in the corners. Many of the best shooting teams have scored on the Wolves with relative ease.

But that’s not Memphis. The Grizzlies shot 35.3 percent from 3-point range this season, 17th best in the NBA at a relatively low volume. In the four regular-season meetings, Memphis shot a putrid 30.2 percent from deep, averaging just 9.3 made triples a game — the lowest number on average Minnesota allowed to any opponent.

If that persists in the playoffs, Minnesota’s sometimes shaky defense can likely withstand Memphis over a seven-game stretch.

Russell roars

In the regular season, Memphis showed Minnesota a lot of “drop” pick-and-roll coverage, where the defending big man sags toward the paint as the ballhandler comes off the screen. D’Angelo Russell eats that look alive. Give Russell open looks off the bounce from 15 to 24 feet and watch what he can do.

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Memphis was easily the opponent against which Russell experienced the most success this season. The guard averaged 31 points and 6.8 assists against the Grizzlies, shooting 56 percent from the field and 46 percent from deep.

Perhaps Memphis will shift defensive looks to slow Russell, which could open things up for others. But if it doesn’t, and Minnesota’s point guard is allowed to cook, the Wolves’ offense becomes infinitely tougher to stop.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves
Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) is fouled on a shot by Minnesota Timberwolves forward Anthony Edwards (1) in the fourth quarter Feb. 24, 2022, at Target Center in Minneapolis.
David Berding / USA Today Sports

Bottling Morant

Prior to missing a large chunk of games over the final third of the season due to injury, Ja Morant’s dominance had the young guard in the thick of the MVP conversation. The third-year standout averaged 27.4 point, 6.7 assists and 5.7 rebounds.

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But success was harder for him to find against Minnesota. Morant was spectacular in the first meeting between the teams, finishing with 33 points. But he struggled mightily over the final three contests, averaging just 15.7 points on a woeful 30-percent shooting.

The Wolves’ high wall pick-and-roll scheme is designed to get the ball out of the hands of the ball-handler and Memphis’ spot-up shooters weren’t able to make Minnesota pay this season. That put a lot of pressure on Morant, as did having Patrick Beverley in his hip pocket every possession.

Morant is the best player in this series, which is usually a large determining factor of who advances in the NBA playoffs. But if Minnesota can mitigate his impact, its chances of survival skyrocket.

Own the glass

Memphis is the best rebounding team in the NBA, pacing the league in rebounds (49.2) and offensive rebounds (14.1) per game. The oversized Grizzlies get the offensive rebound on more than a third of their missed shots. That presents a challenge for Minnesota, which was near the league’s basement in defensive rebounding percentage this season (70.6).

The good news for Minnesota, also a high-level offensive rebounding team, is that Memphis isn’t as good on the defensive glass, so Minnesota can counteract the Grizzlies’ second-chance points with some of their own on the other end.

In the four meetings, Memphis averaged a whopping 21 second-chance points per game, but Minnesota was close behind with 19.3. If the Wolves can keep the battle of the boards relatively close, they’ll force Memphis to find other ways to win.

Consistency

It was evident again in Tuesday’s play-in win over the Clippers: When they attack with full force and attention to detail, the Timberwolves can play really good basketball. They did so every time they played Memphis this season, and the results showed.

But those types of efforts haven’t always been there for Minnesota. The Grizzlies, meanwhile, do that nearly every night. That’s why Memphis won 56 games, the second-most in the NBA.

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So, while Minnesota matches up well with Memphis when both teams are at their best, the challenge for the Timberwolves is to see how often they can produce that best effort over a seven-game series. If they can deliver five or six peak performances, the Wolves just might pull the upset.

Series prediction

This figures to be a entertaining, potentially evenly matched series that could simply be determined by home-court advantage. Grizzlies in seven.

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