There is a good, evidence-based reason why resiliency is not often a word associated with the Minnesota Timberwolves. By evening their first-round playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies at two games apiece via a 119-118 victory on Saturday night, the 2021-22 Wolves have ensured that only one other team in the history of the franchise — the one featuring Kevin Garnett’s MVP season 17 years ago — will have lasted longer in the postseason.
Of course, dismantling longstanding assumptions of laughable ineptitude has become a process of checking off boxes on a lengthy worksheet for this team ever since they utilized a rapacious defense to wipe the floor with the Houston Rockets in the season opener. They tore through the regular season playing at the fastest pace and scoring the most points of any of the 30 teams in the NBA while deploying a high-octane, high-risk, high-reward style of defense that credibly covered their weakness in personnel at that end of the court.
Now here we are, locked up with the second-seeded Grizzlies in a series that has been reduced to capturing two out of three games to move on to the second round. Before we anticipate the rest of a matchup that has already provided the invaluable experience that can be parlayed into wisdom in years to come, however, it’s worth savoring the lingering tingle from the weekend’s Saturday night special.
KAT comes up big
It was a redemption game for Karl-Anthony Towns, the beleaguered All-Star whose quest for validation seems perpetually on probation. When the Wolves coughed up a would-be win like a giant hairball in Game 3 of the series, blowing a 25-point lead, KAT’s inability to impose his imprint fell under the microscope. Besieged by multiple Grizzlies coming at him in various sizes and from various angles, he managed just four shots, way too few for the team’s leading scorer, and his two free throws and four turnovers versus one assist further underscored how effectively Memphis had diminished his potency.
Counting the play-in game against the Clippers, postseason-KAT had been unable to solve the increasingly common strategy of using a brawny but mobile forward instead of a hulking center as his primary defender and then sending bigs and littles as randomly-timed reinforcements for extra rattling. Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins had eschewed that strategy in the opening game of the series and paid the price, embraced it in the next two games and emerged with victories.
Coming into Game 4, then, KAT was in the pressure cooker, with points scored being the primary gauge on whether he was the one cooking or being cooked. Eleven seconds in, he found himself behind the three-point arc in a second-chance opportunity and let it splash. On the next possession, again outside the arc, he drove toward the hoop before the gang-guarding could commence and collided between two defenders to earn the free throws. The template was set for full-scale aggression.
By the end of the first quarter, KAT had drawn fouls on four different Grizzlies that sent him to the line eight times, where he converted seven, giving him ten points — more than he scored in the entirety of Game Three. His six rebounds in that opening quarter also surpassed his full Game Three total. His one assist and four turnovers matched the numbers for all of the previous game. For good or for ill, Towns was going to be a much more prominent factor.
Prominent became dominant, to the tune of 33 points and 14 rebounds in a game-high 42:26 of playing time. Rather than shirk from contact, KAT welcomed it, going to the free-throw line 17 times. After the game, Jenkins blasted the officiating crew for what he regarded as excessive whistles. But while the judgment on more than a few of their calls could indeed be cause for dispute, the large number of fouls involving dogged coverage of a team’s best player who was forcibly resisting gang-guarding in a physical playoff game was par the course — as the 20 trips to the line made by Memphis’ Ja Morant in Game 1 already indicated.
The difference this time was that KAT was not content to merely “make the right play” in a docile fashion by fostering ball movement. Nor was he going to lose his composure. He was far from perfect — unsuccessfully trying to corral a loose ball that was already going to be a Wolves possession when it went out of bounds in the closing minutes of a tight game was a particularly bone-headed gaffe — but he was steadfast in his involvement. The so-called “dagger” was appropriately in his hands when he went to the free-throw line with the Wolves up by two and just 4.4 seconds remaining in the game. He coolly drained them both, leaving the pressure cooker empty as the Grizzlies’ final three-pointer became meaningless to the outcome.
If Game 4 wasn’t such an obvious “KAT redemption game,” it would have inevitably been christened “the J-Mac game.” That’s because backup point guard Jordan McLaughlin provided another playoff verity: the unheralded benchwarmer who comes in and delivers a shiver of electricity that becomes a vital component in the team’s ultimate success.
J-Mac has become one of coach Chris Finch’s two favorite players (the other is second-year combo forward Jaden McDaniels) because his style naturally embodies Finch’s “first principles” of offense: Pushing the pace via ball movement and player movement without the ball. Almost always the smallest player on the court — his listed height of five-foot, 11-inches is generous by an inch or two — he compensates with a rapid, assured dribble that frequently initiates the Wolves’ attack before the defense is set, and with an advanced court vision and basketball IQ that exploits that defensive indecision in a manner that fosters a unanimous buy-in on those “first principles” and thus generates a prolific and efficient offense.
On Saturday night, however, J-Mac transformed himself from whippet enabler to cool gunslinger. It made sense that the Grizzlies let it happen. He’d played less than 28 minutes total in the first two games of the series and then not at all in Game 3, a decision Finch freely acknowledged was “stupid” after Game Four. In addition, J-Mac’s inaccurate shooting from long range, 31.8%, was arguably the biggest flaw in his game this season.
Consequently, when Patrick Beverley drove into the paint early in the second quarter, the Memphis defense left McLaughlin unattended out behind the arc. As always, he kept moving anyway, scampering right, receiving the pass and swishing a trey that put the Wolves from down-one to up-two. A minute later, the Wolves grabbed the rebound and broke free on the fast break. PatBev again found J-Mac as he raced to the left corner. Bingo.
J-Mac re-entered the game for his second stint with less than four minutes to play in the third quarter. Memphis had just gone on a 9-0 run over the prior two minutes that cut a dozen-point Wolves lead down to the three. J-Mac received the pass at the top of the arc and this time drove the lane, where he was fouled by Tyus Jones and converted both free throws. On the Wolves’ next possession he speed-dribbled up the court and then delivered an underhand feed to KAT running in rhythm for a layup and-1 three-point play.
At 1:44 of the third, he again initiated early offense with an underhanded pass to KAT above the arc, who again drove toward the hoop. But this time he quickly passed the ball back to J-Mac repositioned for a trey, and McLaughlin calmly splashed his third long-range missile of the contest. Forty seconds later he pushed the pace all the way to the rim and then dumped the ball off to a cutting Jarred Vanderbilt for the slam. In the final seconds of the period, he chased down a Grizzlies outlet pass for a steal after a missed layup by Anthony Edwards.
Finch wisely kept J-Mac in the game for the first four-and-a-half minutes of the final quarter. He again moved to the corner as PatBev drove the hoop. By the time the Grizzlies defense ran out to contest, J-Mac put it on the floor and dribbled around the first defender to score a tough 16-foot pullup jumper along the baseline. Capping his 16-point performance (tying his season-high for scoring) was his fourth three-pointer of the game off another Beverley drive-and-kick.
On a night when the rest of the bench crew simply didn’t have it — four others who shot a combined 1-for-9 from the field — J-Mac shot 5-for-6 and made all four of his three-point attempts. The Wolves outscored the Grizzlies by six points in the 14:08 he was on the floor and were minus 5 in the 33:56 he sat. This year he was the 12th-highest-paid player on the team with a salary of $2 million. Next season that rises to a whopping $2.16 million. The year after that it is $2.32 million, and not even guaranteed.
PatBev, Vando reemerge
Obviously, you need your stars to show up in the playoffs. It is no coincidence that the Wolves have won both games when KAT has been most engaged. The team and its fan base should feel especially good about the fact that Ant is averaging a team-high 24.8 points per game on shooting percentages of 57.1 from two-point territory, 42.1 from distance on 9.5 trey attempts per game, and 86.4 from the free-throw line. That’s a true shooting percentage of 60.6 for a 20-year-old All-Star-in-waiting who will hopefully be doing this in the postseason for many seasons to come.
But you also need your glue guys, your character guys to stage their inimitable shows. High-energy guys are special in the regular season but are uniquely challenged to remain positive x-factors in the playoffs, when everyone is amped.
Tip the cap then to PatBev and Vando, who need as well as deserve the attention right now. Throughout the regular season, they were, respectively, the cultural catalyst and the hamstrings-and-lungs behind the relentlessly scrappy style of play that has distinguished this 2021-22 team from any other Wolves outfit in recent memory. In the playoffs, after some initial dips in effectiveness, they have reasserted themselves despite an environment in which everyone is emulating their virtues.
It is not an exaggeration to say that PatBev’s decision to blatantly go right at Grizzlies star Ja Morant off the dribble, exposing his lackluster defense, has changed the dynamic of the series these past two games. The Wolves have already structured their defenses schemes around containing Ja, but challenging him at the other end strains a seam in the Grizzlies’ signature “grit and grind” style and increases the possibility that the engine of their offense will be sidelined or at least distracted and hindered by foul trouble.
In Game 2 of the series, Beverley seemed a step slow and Ja enjoyed his best-overall performance in a blowout Grizzlies win. As the oldest member of the Timberwolves roster by a wide margin, with a recent history of chronic injuries that compelled the Wolves to err on the side of caution with his playing time during the regular season, it was reasonable to be concerned that the physical corrosion of playoff hoops was already exacting its toll.
Nope. Perhaps inspired by the notion of taking it to Ja, PatBev has burnished his value the past two games and has now increased his playing time in each contest as Finch finds it increasingly dicey taking him off the court. On Saturday, he scored 17 — his highest playoff point total since his Clippers beat the Warriors in Game 5 back in 2019 — and chipped in five assists (four to J-Mac) versus just one turnover while adding a pair of his trademark blocks-from-behind. Only KAT logged more minutes than his 37:27.
After lasting a measly 9:12 in Game 2, Vando seemed in jeopardy of losing the bulk of his power-forward rotations to McDaniels for the rest of the series. But he redeemed himself by spearheading the voracious defensive energy that enabled the Wolves to blitz Memphis and open up huge leads in the beginning of both halves in Game Three. He also was deployed as a rare small-ball center beside McDaniels in the frontcourt after Finch lost faith in Naz Reid. Even so, some old bugaboos appeared: He made only two of eight shots (although he did get to the foul line 8 times) and committed five fouls.
On Saturday night, Vando was in his element as an unsung hero. Remember that KAT three-pointer that immediately lowered the temperature on his pressure-cooker drama? Well, it came after Vando corralled the offensive rebound during the first possession of the game and fed it out to Towns.
Then there were the dunks — a fat half-dozen of them, spaced out per quarter in a 2-1-2-1 manner. Two of them were repayments from KAT: the first a zipped dime from beyond the arc when a Vando cut caught the Grizzlies napping; the second stemming from KAT being double-teamed aggressively in the paint right after he caught an entry pass and quickly dishing it to Vando on a well-time baseline cut. The latter is what McDaniels has learned to do so well with KAT, and thus bolstered Vando’s argument for staying on the court.
And stay he did, to the tune of 34:49, a career playoff high. It was the ideal Vando regimen — constant playing time spotted by minor rest, with his minutes per quarter running 7:13/9:27/8:57/9:12. Against an opponent whose identity is built around the constant grind of hustle-and-flow for the entire 94 feet of the court, Vando was the “taste of your own medicine” antidote, ever-poised to bang and disrupt. On a roster that is demonstrably smaller and less brawny than the Grizzlies, he provides the quicksilver thrust that mitigates bullying beneath the hoop. And on Saturday, a mere three fouls for his trouble.
Last but not least, it bears noting that desperate times call for desperate measures — and vice-versa. If the Wolves had lost Game Four as the follow-up to their collapse in Game Three, earning a victory in the Game Five rematch in Memphis — let alone sweeping the final three to eke out the series — would have been, uh, improbable.
What happened instead was that KAT redeemed, J-Mac emerged, and PatBev and Vando played like their futures were at stake.
It is no secret that a frontcourt realignment is the most likely tweak the Wolves will make as a means of altering their 2022-23 roster. The margin of error on the “high wall” defensive scheme is exceedingly thin, but the Wolves lack enough size and brawn to have their bigs protect the rim with classic “drop” coverage. In a different vein, guarding KAT with a bruising power forward would carry much more risk if Minnesota could counter with a frontcourt mate that had greater shooting range and accuracy than what Vando possesses.
Consequently, Vando’s best closing argument on his usage in the future is to demonstrate how the Wolves can thrive in the crucible in the playoffs when his nonstop energy is deployed. It won’t lessen the need for a Vando-less alternative, but it will strengthen the argument for the Vando option to remain essential in the mix.
As for PatBev, he obviously loves it here and is cherished by teammates, coaches and fans alike. But he is in the twilight of his career, with a defiant pride that will make reductions in his role problematic, even as the tread on his tires continues to thin. The ability to showcase his special sauce — like taking it to Ja — in an especially impactful way bolsters his argument for continued relevance, and the extended tenure and sizable paychecks that go with it.
Two lunch-pail players jostling for their future place in line when it comes time to punch the clock. For however long the Wolves have them, it has been, and will be, a treat.