The Western Conference’s second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and seventh-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves meet in the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs. Minnesota beat the L.A. Clippers in the play-in tournament.
More Yahoo Sports NBA first-round playoff previews:
How they got here
Memphis Grizzlies (56-26)
Ja Morant sprained his left knee nine minutes into a 32-point home loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 26, when the Grizzlies fell to 9-10, ninth place in the West. The luster had already worn from a surprise playoff appearance a year earlier, and Memphis was again a young team trying to establish its place in the league.
Only, the Grizzlies had other ideas. They knew their place. It was among the conference's elite, and they were going to prove it, even it meant everyone on the roster had to compete with each other for the Most Improved Player of the Year award. Tyus Jones stepped into the starting point guard role. Desmond Bane established himself as a bona fide scoring threat. Jaren Jackson Jr. joined the Defensive Player of the Year chat. Dillon Brooks and Steven Adams did the gritty work, and everyone in a deep rotation joined the grind.
The Grizzlies won 10 of 12 without Morant during the holiday season. Not only did Morant hop aboard a moving train, he threw more coal into the steam engine. His 27.4 points (49/34/76 shooting splits), 6.7 assists and 5.7 rebounds in 33.1 minutes per game for a No. 2 seed would have put him squarely in the MVP discussion, if not for his 25 missed games. Never fear, for Memphis also finished 20-5 without him.
Minnesota Timberwolves (46-36)
There is little difference between this season's Timberwolves roster and last season's 23-win edition, other than the addition of Patrick Beverley. That was all Chris Finch needed in his first full year as Minnesota's coach. Well, that, a second-year leap from Anthony Edwards and renewed commitment from forgotten All-Stars Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell. The tools were there; they just needed to learn to use them.
The Timberwolves flirted with a top-10 defense for the first half of the season, and since the calendar turned to 2022, they have submitted the league's best offensive rating (118.4 points per 100 possessions).
Towns played with a fire previously unseen and remained one of the greatest shooting bigs in NBA history. Russell averaged a career-high 7.1 assists per game and a career-low 2.5 turnovers. Edwards managed to maintain his extraordinary confidence and improve his decision-making. Beverley played maniacal defense.
Role players Jarred Vanderbilt, Jaden McDaniels, Malik Beasley and Naz Reid, among others, fell in line behind them, striking a balance of offensive and defensive versatility. The result was 48 wins and their first playoff appearance in four years, thanks to a play-in tournament win against the Los Angeles Clippers in which Towns fouled out, Russell and Edwards combined for 59 points, and Beverley led them in rebounds.
The Timberwolves are good, and that is not something we have been able to say very often in their history.
Head to head
The Grizzlies and Timberwolves split their regular season series, 2-2.
The four meetings were more indicative of two young teams than a potential playoff preview. Both teams were wildly inconsistent from game to game. How that manifests in the playoffs will be a fascinating watch.
Three of Morant's six least efficient scoring games this season came against Minnesota. The Grizzlies won one of them in Towns' absence. They lost another by 43 points, after which Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said, "They punked us. In three seasons, it's probably one of the least competitive games we've ever had."
Russell was the most dependable performer on either team, averaging a 31-4-7 on 56/46/79 shooting splits in the four games. The absence of Brooks for all of them played a significant role. If there is anything to take away from their regular season series, it is that three of the four games came down to the final two minutes.
The Grizzlies are malleable in late-game situations. Morant, Bane and Jackson are mainstays. Brooks should be, barring health concerns or ineffectiveness. Morant, Brooks, Bane, Jackson and Adams have formed a monster lineup, outscoring opponents by 25.1 points per 100 possessions in meaningful minutes, according to Cleaning the Glass, but Minnesota creates matchup problems for Adams. Brandon Clarke has also performed well as Jackson's frontcourt partner, and Kyle Anderson is a playoff battle-tested option.
Same goes for the Timberwolves. Russell, Beverley, Edwards and Towns will be in close games down the stretch. Jenkins has rotated the fifth spot, slotting either Vanderbilt or McDaniels. Vanderbilt is a defensive stud, and McDaniels provides more offensive versatility. Memphis' best lineups with either of them at power forward have outscored opponents by roughly 13 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage minutes.
Matchup to watch
The pressure is on the Grizzlies to make a statement in the first round and prove their 56-win season can translate into playoff success, and Beverley thrives in that pressure. Morant undoubtedly wants to put the world on notice that he is a superstar capable of carrying a contender, and for his first test he will have to face the most annoying defender in the league, whose mission is to burrow inside his opponents' jersey.
Nobody defended Morant more this season than Beverley, who held the All-NBA point guard to 14 points on 6-for-17 shooting in 20 minutes of head-to-head possessions over four games, according to the NBA's tracking data. If Beverley can sustain that pressure for the series and avoid foul trouble, the Timberwolves will have a chance against a deeper Grizzlies team. If Morant gets going, though, good night, Minnesota.
Memphis Grizzlies (-300)
Minnesota Timberwolves (+250)
Grizzlies in six.
– – – – – – –