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Making sense of the Wolves’ vexing Game 3 loss to the Grizzlies

There was plenty to hate about the Wolves’ performance Thursday night. But there were a few things to like, too.

Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks shown with Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns during the second quarter of Thursday night’s game.
Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks shown with Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns during the second quarter of Thursday night’s game.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re here to have your cynicism fanned into a righteous glow or to be told how terrible it is to be a Minnesota sports fan, there are dozens of better spots to rant, wallow and work through your process. You’re probably not going to get what you need from me. 

Fueled by a magnificent surge of coordinated team defense, the Minnesota Timberwolves were up by 26 points over the Memphis Grizzlies with less than two minutes gone in the second quarter, taking a commanding 47-21 advantage. They proceeded to cough up most of it, scoring just 4 points the rest of the first half to go into the locker room up seven, 51-44. 

The second half repeated the pattern, only worse: Minnesota’s tenacious defense permitted just ten second-half points through nearly the first nine minutes of the third period, and the lead was again robust at 79-54 with 3:10 left to play in the quarter. But through the remainder of the third and all but twelve seconds of the fourth quarter, the Wolves were blitzed by a score of 50-13, an epic collapse. The final score was Memphis 104, Minnesota 95. After three games, the Grizzlies now hold a 2-1 advantage in the best-of-7 first-round series. 

The loss was a heartbreaker because in both halves the Wolves seized control completely enough to foster the reasonable expectation that they would leave the arena up 2-1, with another home game left to play before heading back to Memphis. That they did not, could not, close it out is a growing pain that is now seared into the fabric of this season and this roster of players and coaches. It poked at some chronic vulnerabilities and re-dramatized some lingering questions everyone associated with the franchise hoped were being resolved. 

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Had it been a more workmanlike, pedestrian defeat, the sting of it would not be nearly as sharp — or as vexing. Of course, the thrills prompted by the Wolves dismantling the Grizzlies offense for long stretches at the beginning of both halves, and the showcasing of slick, confident ball movement and deadly outside shooting to the tune of 39 first-quarter points, would also be missing from the memory bank. For those who judge a game merely by its outcome, what happened on Thursday night was a horrible waste of time and faith. For those who cherish the game for its depth and dynamism, there was a lot to love — and at least as much to rue. 

A missing KAT

Any autopsy report needs to begin with two things that were sorely needed and not adequately provided — shots by Karl-Anthony Towns and timeouts by coach Chris Finch. These were not only fundamental tools at the Wolves disposal, but two of the more reliable outposts for sustenance in an emergency. 

Counting the regular season, playoffs and a play-in, KAT has now logged 491 games over his seven-year career. Until Thursday night, when he was 3-for-4 from the field, he had never shot less than five times in any of them. 

While the infrequency of KAT’s shooting was unprecedented, the factors that prompted it has been one of the most prominent themes of the Wolves 2021-22 season: Opponents understanding that it is more effective to guard him with an active, mobile, power forward and then bring double teams with the larger center and/or more quick and aggressive smalls arriving from a variety of angles. 

After the gang-guarding deployed by the Clippers flummoxed KAT into a wretched performance in the play-in game, the Grizzlies unwisely bailed him out by using the stout but slow center Steven Adams as part of their KAT schemes in the opening game of the first round, despite a wealth of better options on their roster. That changed when Adams picked up a couple of fouls within the first three minutes of Game Two and hasn’t set foot on the court since. Instead, Memphis has utilized their versatile squadron of forwards — Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, Kyle Anderson and center-forward Xavier Tillman — to relentlessly harass out of his comfort zone. 

The result is alarming for any Wolves fan. KAT shot only seven times in Game Two, but also got to the free throw line eight times and grabbed 11 rebounds. Despite playing nearly five minutes longer in Game Three, the field goal attempts went from seven to four, the free throws from eight down to 2 and the rebounds from 11 to 5. What didn’t change much was the dreadful assist-to-turnover ratio. Memphis constantly forced KAT to give up the ball, yet he was able to produce only one dime in each of the last two games while turning the ball over five times in Game Two and four times on Thursday night. 

When your lone All Star and team scoring leader has more turnovers than made field goals and hasn’t sunk a single three-pointer in two measly attempts over the past two games, your odds of winning vanish. 

The time-out debacle

While the foibles of KAT have been sufficiently multifaceted and aggravating over the years to make him the focal point of criticism (some of it habitually unjustified), Chris Finch has experienced a charmed tenure, his coaching style and methods lauded exponentially more than he has been lambasted in his year and a half on the job. But even the most loyal of Finch’s fans can’t overlook his inexplicable refusal to call a timeout in an effort to staunch the ineptitude as the Grizzlies transformed an 83-67 deficit into an 88-85 lead over the first 5:16 of the fourth quarter. 

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Finch’s most trusted confidante on the Wolves bench is assistant coach Micah Nori, who is seated beside him in constant conversation. One of Nori’s primary duties is informing Finch of potential spots in the game when time-outs would be prudent. Nori’s first and perhaps most influential mentor was former coach Butch Carter, who had a cardinal rule that you call a time out if the opponent has gone on an 8-0 run. The Grizzlies went on a 9-0 run within the first two minutes of the fourth quarter, tacked on four more in the next minute, and finished off a 21-2 onslaught more than three minutes after that before Finch decided it was time to disrupt the momentum and advise his troops, who were now trailing for the first time in the game. 

During the postgame press conference, Finch was asked by The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski about the absence of time outs during that brutal stretch. “I had burned a lot (of time outs) early and I was kind of just hoping we could get through to the fourth a little deeper beforehand,” Finch replied. It was probably the most meaningful mistake he has committed since he was hired.

Dumb fouls

Finch has been praised by me and others for the way he has coached KAT this season. Among other things, he has devised a defensive scheme that nearly eliminates the drop coverage that had been utilized for years to KAT’s detriment and provided him with more opportunities to defend in space rather than merely at the rim. He recommended an off-season program for KAT to become leaner and quicker but also stronger and it has paid off in Towns torturing opposing centers via dribble penetration as well as outside shooting — his free throw rate and ability to finish with and-1’s are both career highs.  

But what Finch has not been able to coach out of KAT is his tendency to pick up silly, impulsive fouls that make little to no sense even when they are not called, and to devise an offense that flourishes even when KAT is being gang-guarded. Both of these failings also ultimately involve Wolves President of Basketball Operations Sachin Gupta, or his potential successor if Gupta isn’t rehired, because it leads back to the team’s lack of frontcourt depth. If the Wolves had a power forward with more shooting range and a similar amount of tenacity as Jarred Vanderbilt, it would be much more difficult to gang-guard him with mobile big men and would provide more floor spacing and scoring threats when the traps were deployed. It would also reduce the flares of pique that are often at the source of KAT’s impulsive foolishness. A more capable backup center likewise would lessen the damage wrought by the times when fouls or rest sends KAT to the sidelines.

In the postgame on Thursday, Finch conceded that both the fouls and the offensive measures to counterattack the gang-guarding were salient issues when the Grizzlies mounted their two comebacks. 

“We’re talking to him,” the coach replied when I asked him how to mitigate the persistent problem with fouling. “It is the offensive fouls that are hurting us more than anything else. Those are the ones we have to clean up.” 

As for subsidiary options when KAT is being pressured, Finch said, “They swarm him everywhere. Three in the post and at the top of the key they are just in on him. We’ve got to find him in the flow and that is just how it is going to have to be. I mean, when we went to him and they doubled, we got good looks (passing to others) but they just didn’t knock them down.”

Actually, most of the missed opportunities on offense weren’t created by KAT on Thursday. His lone dime was a textbook counter, a dish to D’Angelo Russell for a three as the double-team descended on him. But that was in the first two minutes of the game. Otherwise, the Wolves missed three treys — two by Anthony Edwards, one by Malik Beasley — that were a direct feed from KAT and were 1-2 on three-pointers where KAT made the “hockey assist” pass, with Ant converting and PatBev clanking. 

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But Finch was dead-on about the offensive fouling. The first one occurred when KAT was late and obvious chucking DLo’s man on a would-be screen when the Wolves were up 17 late in the first half — the type high-risk, little-reward gambit you allow yourself to attempt when you are comfortably ahead. The second offensive foul happened when KAT bowled over Desmond Bane driving from the top of the key and dishing to the corner for Beasley after the lead had shrunk to seven just before the half — again, an unwise, telegraphed play. The third offensive foul was when KAT tried to set up in the left midrange area and aggressively moved Brandon Clarke’s arm out of the way with an upward motion as the Grizzlies were mounting their second surge early in the fourth quarter. 

That’s three turnovers as well as three fouls. It reduced KAT’s playing time to 32:46, fourth-most among the five starters, and compelled backup Naz Reid to demonstrate for the second straight game that he is not ready for the rigors of postseason play — Finch eventually resorted to a smallball lineup featuring Vando at center and Jaden McDaniels at power forward. 

What’s frustrating is that KAT remains unrepentant, to the point of defiance, when it comes to some of these actions. When it was pointed out after Game Two that he was called for blatantly kicking out his leg on a three-pointer, he replied that he had won a three-point contest shooting that way, inferring he wasn’t going to change. It was apparently lost on him that nobody guards you in those contests — you can’t foul. 

Learning curve

Bottom line, both KAT and Finch deserve criticism for what went down on Thursday night. By the same token, frustrated fans need to get a grip. Cries that Finch should be fired and that KAT should be traded because the Wolves will never win with him playing a prominent role are knee-jerk and short-sighted.

Does KAT have issues? I’ve spent most of his seven-year career detailing them, and where he is stubbornly resistant to change, he deserves to be ripped. But KAT also had the best season of his career in 2021-22, approaching his 2017-18 efficiency on offense and playing the best defense of his career by a wide margin. 

Granted, the Wolves are unlikely to be legitimate championship contenders if he is the alpha star on the roster, but there are clear signs of Anthony Edwards ascending to that exalted spot in the near future. One can confidently make that statement and still note that Ant disappeared when his team needed him most on Thursday. 

Ant played the entire fourth quarter, won by the Grizzlies 37-12. He rolled a procession of zeros on the box score — rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, turnovers. Nada. He never ventured toward the hoop, instead launching a trio of three-pointers. The first one was an airball. The second one hit the back iron. The third one splashed from the corner — turning a 104-92 deficit to 104-95 with 11 seconds left in the game. 

Ant did seem to knock knees or otherwise ding himself in the second quarter, which have accounted for the stiffness of his performance down the stretch. But in any case, this first playoff is his learning curve. As time goes on, one would expect to see more performances like his 36-point explosion in the opener of this first round and fewer occasions where he makes himself a forgotten figure, as happened on Thursday. 

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These are also the first playoffs for Chris Finch running the sideline — Patrick Beverly is the lone member of the roster that has previously entered a playoff series with as much clout in his role as he currently owns. For KAT, DLo, Beasley, this is a postseason where they step up in the pecking order, after a multiple-year absence. 

Some perspective

Last season, the Memphis Grizzlies finished in 9th place in the regular season, but toppled the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs for the right to play the top-seeded Utah Jazz. They were led by coach Taylor Jenkins and young guard Ja Morant, both in their second season. They proceeded to ambush the Jazz on the road in the opening game of the first round, then lost four straight. 

This season the Grizzlies improved by 18 games and had the NBA’s second-best record at 56-26. Jenkins and Morant have been named finalists for Coach of the Year and Most Improved Player of the year, respectively. 

It is not far-fetched to imagine a similar type of trajectory for the Wolves, with the frontcourt depth issues being addressed in the off-season and Ant coming into his own in a manner that makes KAT’s role at once more subsidiary and more valuable. 

Sure, the Wolves staged an epic collapse in Game Three. But I remember the way PatBev came out and went straight at Ja on dribble penetration, forcing a subpar defender to guard him and/or for Memphis to adjust. Expect to see more of this angle emphasized the rest of the series. 

I’ll also remember how well-prepared and motivated the defense was, flying around to contest every shot despite decent ball movement from Memphis. Vando had six rebounds and two steals; KAT had three blocks. DLo came out aggressively, getting ten points on 4-9 from the field and grabbing four rebounds while issuing two dimes. It was 39-21. Then Ant buried a trey after four passes arising out of a drive and kick; PatBev barreled to the rim and fed a cutting McDaniels for easy flip-in; Beasley splashed a contested three on a dish from Ant, and suddenly it was 47-21. 

After the Grizzlies had closed the gap to 51-44 at the half, I’ll remember Minnesota re-establishing dominance with a 28-10 run over the first 8:50 of the third period. The defense again hustled in sync, holding Memphis to 33% shooting and not allowing a trey, while DLo, Ant, McDaniels and Vando divvied up the points in individual increments from 10 to 5. Ant and McDaniels are second-year players aged 20 and 21, respectively. Vando had played a grand total of 1,301 NBA minutes coming into this season. 

An epic collapse came next. The offense got very stagnant, then very tense. The defense began to lose the thread in transition as so many shots went awry. The Grizzlies smelled blood, made their second sustained comeback of the game. KAT committed fouls and was bottled up; Finch dithered; Ant disappeared. The second-seeded Grizzlies gutted out one of their classic grit-and-grind games from the seventh-seed Wolves and must be regarded as the clear, if not prohibitive, favorites in a series where both teams have won on the other’s home floor. 

Meanwhile, the Wolves’ front office is preparing for this summer’s draft, where Minnesota will have a pick in the high teens. In the vast majority of recent postseasons, that would be a hot topic among the Wolves cognoscenti. This postseason, Game Four is late Saturday night at Target Center.