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The three factors that will determine the rest of the Wolves’ playoff run

Breaking down the things that will go a long way in determining how soon this eminently enjoyable season comes to a close. 

Timberwolves forward Anthony Edwards shooting a three-point field goal while guarded by Memphis Grizzlies forward Brandon Clarke in game five.
Timberwolves forward Anthony Edwards shooting a three-point field goal while guarded by Memphis Grizzlies forward Brandon Clarke in game five.
Christine Tannous-USA TODAY Sports

By blowing a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter for the second time in three games, the Minnesota Timberwolves have put themselves in a precarious place in the 2021-22 NBA Playoffs, needing to triumph in two elimination games to advance to the second round. 

But also: Having given the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies all they can handle in four of the five games thus far, the Minnesota Timberwolves have earned the opportunity to tie the first-round series at home on Friday night and then head back to Tennessee for a winner-take-all matchup on Sunday. 

Each of the above represents a legitimate perspective. A clear-eyed examination of the Wolves’ performance thus far in this series shows the glass being three-fifths empty — and two-fifths full. Of course, one may also simply be grateful that a glass measuring the Wolves in an NBA postseason exists in the first place. 

The fun part is that there is no need to choose, and good reasons to embrace every view. Seeing this series as two-fifths full is satisfying; three-fifths empty is instructive; being here at all, on the brink of Game Six, is glorious.  

So, with all that in mind, let’s break down the x-factors that will go a long way in determining how soon this eminently enjoyable season comes to a close:

1. Rebounding

The context: If the Grizzlies had a marquee advantage heading into this series it was their potential ability to dominate the boards, especially extending possessions with their offensive rebounding. During the regular season, they led the NBA in both the gross number of offensive rebounds per game (14.4) and offensive rebounding percentage (33.8). Meanwhile, the Wolves finished 25th out of the 30 NBA teams in defensive rebounds and 28th in defensive rebounding percentage.

In fact, Memphis was so good on the offensive boards that they led the league in total rebounding percentage (52.6), despite finishing 15th in defensive rebounding percentage. Meanwhile, the Wolves ranked 10th in offensive rebounding percentage, boosted their total rebounding percentage up to 21st.

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The result thus far: On the surface, this looks like a success story. The quickness and skilled finesse of Karl-Anthony Towns played the Grizzlies’ best offensive rebounder, Steven Adams, right off the floor after Memphis was beaten at home in Game 1. And by the numbers, Minnesota has done a credible job reducing the huge edge the Grizzlies were supposed to have on the glass. The gap in total rebounding percentage between the two teams — Memphis at 51.7, the Wolves at 48.3 — is narrower than in any of the other seven first-round playoff series. On the offensive boards, Memphis went from first in the regular season to 4th among the 16 playoff teams, their percentage dropping from 33.8 to 30.6.

But when Memphis has gone in for the kill during this series, offensive rebounds have been their murder weapon. In the two games where the Grizzlies wiped out huge deficits in the fourth quarter, they actually had more offensive rebounds than the Wolves had defensive rebounds — even counting the non-competitive garbage time in the blowout win in Game Two, the Grizzlies have grabbed a whopping 43.9% of the available rebounds on their offensive glass in the fourth quarter. 

Replacing the slow, leviathan Adams as king of the offensive caroms has been Brandon Clarke, a piece of barbed wire most easily described as the Grizzlies version of Jarred Vanderbilt. At 6-foot, 8-inches and 215 pounds, Clarke is an inch shorter and a pound heavier than Vando and shares with him a dedicated competitive spirit, a lack of scoring prowess, and a glee for dirty work as a means of gaining access to the court. 

There are also crucial differences. While Vando rebounds on the gallop, flying in from the baselines or angles on the perimeter to ambush opponents with the swoop, Clarke does the early grunt work of establishing position beneath the boards. But he’s rarely content to just hold firm in place on the inside track, instead watching intently where the shot is headed and then sidling his way along the interior of the scrum. 

Two other refinements make Clarke an elite offensive rebounder. If he can’t secure the carom himself, his tap touch is versatile and shrewd. If the opponents are clustered near the hoop, he’ll knock it hard out to the perimeter. If the jousting is relatively sparsely attended and he’s being edged out anyway, he’ll tap it lightly to the open teammate near him by the paint. But if the early work pays off and the rebound is his alone, Clarke has a quick second-jump and a soft floater that is the only thing he shoots with any accuracy. 

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Clarke played all but 4 seconds in the fourth-quarter comebacks in games three and five that each put Memphis in the driver’s seat in this series. In those 23:56 of playing time, he has generated a phenomenal ten offensive rebounds, including seven in Game Five on Tuesday night, a stat Wolves coach Chris Finch specifically cited as the reason Minnesota lost. Among those ten rebounds were three tap-outs to teammates, and six putback attempts, four of them successful. 

Clarke was such a dominant presence on the glass that Memphis was able to go small, with him as the de facto center, once their big man Jaren Jackson Jr. fouled out Tuesday. 

The needed adjustments: The beauty of playoff basketball is the chess match from game to game. The Wolves did an admirable job of exploiting Adams, and have frustrated both Ja Morant and Jackson Jr., regarded as the Grizzlies’ two best players coming into this series. But that has created opportunities for Clarke, whose dedication to the craft of offensive rebounding makes him particularly adept at being in the right position both as the defense scrambles to contain Morant and as he sees where Ja’s shot is headed. 

To effectively counter Clarke, the Wolves have to pay more attention to him. Can they do that while still mucking up the dribble penetration of Morant, the outside shooting of Desmond Bane and the overall contributions of Jackson Jr., or is it a “pick your poison situation”? 

Well, curbing Morant is the obvious priority, and Bane shooting in rhythm from behind the arc is also a deadly prospect. Even so, a close look at the rebounds Clarke and others are garnering, especially on the offensive boards, indicates attention-deficits from nearly all the Wolves at various points. The trendy phrase, “multiple-effort plays” can be expanded to “multiple effort assignments”— players being aware enough to instantly react to the next priority when it is called for. 

The player most logically able to step up his rebounding game is Anthony Edwards, who had zero defensive boards and just one rebound overall in 34:50 minutes of play on Tuesday. If there is a flaw in Ant’s game, it is his tendency to zone out while playing defense on occasion, and Clarke and others have exploited it for rebound positioning. But Ant is hardly alone in the need to stay alert. Clarke has snatched rebounds amid two or three Wolves a few times late in games already and seized inside position on KAT, Vando and Jaden McDaniels as well as Edwards. 

2. Offensive efficiency

The context: The Wolves came into the playoffs with the 3rd best offensive efficiency (points scored per possession) since the All-Star break, while the Grizzlies had the second-most efficient defense (fewest points allowed per possession) over the same period. 

The result thus far: Call it “sticky,” the word Finch used when an absence of ball movement sabotaged the Wolves’ offense the first two months of the season. Now as then, each member of the Big 3 tends to operate in isolation, taking turns trying to generate their own offense rather than fostering the ball movement and movement without the ball that are the keys to Finch’s offensive philosophy. Throw in a boatload of turnovers and the Wolves rank 14th among the 16 playoff teams in offensive efficiency, plummeting from 119.4 scored per 100 possessions since the All-Star break (and 113.8 for the entire regular season) to 105.8 in the playoffs.

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The needed adjustments: Move the ball, and foster more player movement away from the ball. Make quicker decisions about furthering the flow of the offense before the defense has a chance to get entrenched. And alter Finch’s laissez-faire attitude toward player empowerment.

First, let’s grant that Memphis has a dogged defensive mindset that lives up to its “grit and grind” credo. All the more reason not to remain static in isolation. Let’s also grant that more isolation plays are part of the fabric of playoff basketball, which is why the Wolves’ deployment of them has risen from 7.8% of their plays in the regular season to 11.8% in the playoffs. But after ranking fourth in the NBA on isolation points-per-play at 1.0 and 25th on turnover frequency at 7.9% during the regular season, the Wolves are dead-last among the 16 playoff teams at .77 points-per-play and have nearly tripled their turnover frequency at 21.2% on isolations during the playoffs. 

Although he contributes to the turnovers, KAT is not the problem here. He has an effective field goal percentage (which factors in the added weight of three-pointers) of 78.6% on isolation plays and scores 1.17 points per play, while utilizing isolations for just 11.7 percent of his play-types, almost exactly the team average. Ant leads in isolation usage — 26.1% of his play-types — and has a 45.5 effective field goal percentage while scoring .86 points per play. D’Angelo Russell uses isolations for 16.5% of his play types, has a 29.2 eFG%, and is scoring .50 points per play on isolations.

Outside shooting is also not the culprit — the Wolves are shooting fewer treys at better accuracy in the playoffs. After leading the NBA in three-point attempts during the regular season, they are fifth among 16 teams in the playoffs and 4th in accuracy as compared to 12th during the regular season. 

No, it is dreadful shooting from inside the arc, and turnovers, which are sabotaging the team. The Wolves are a miserable 48.4% from two-point territory, worst among the playoff teams, with DLo, at 10-for-37, most prominent among the clankers. And their turnover ratio of 18.3% is also dead-last in the postseason — it was 13.5%, 17th among the 30 teams, during the regular season.

Game 6 of a playoff series is too late to try and shoot your way out of a slump, and with the other two members of the Big 3 both in rhythm (KAT’s postseason TS% is 71.5; Ant’s is 62.1) while DLo is hounded by ace perimeter defender Dillon Brooks, the Wolves would be better off with their point guard being a facilitator first and foremost. Watching the masterful play Finch drew up to tie the game in the final seconds on Tuesday also made me realize how infrequently the Wolves incorporate structure into their schemes. The coach has typically prided himself on letting his players dictate the actions and building his sets off of that. But in do-or-die games such as Friday night (and hopefully Sunday to follow), a few more play-calls and overt discipline over decision-making might put the offense back on track and extend the season.

3. Maturity

The context: However it was going to unfold, the silver lining of this surprising postseason was the experience it was going to engender for a young roster. Getting a taste of the higher intensity of play, the focused adjustments and readjustments that seek to exploit or counter a perceived advantage from game to game, and the national spotlight for a change, are all a necessary prerequisites for further growth in seasons to come.  

For those who claim that KAT and DLo are no longer young but in fact entering the prime of their careers, let’s set the context. Both came into this season needing to prove they could be core members, if not outright leaders, of a quality team. If they had failed to do so, it is fair to surmise that the Wolves might have moved on and concentrated their rebuild around Ant and Jaden McDaniels. What happened instead was that KAT and DLo both made a commitment to the defensive side of the ball and were the two max-salary players on a roster that enjoyed extraordinary camaraderie throughout the course of the season. Those were synergistic occurrences that were previously not a part of their resumes. 

Sure, both had a smattering of playoff experience. But not in the role of veteran leaders and tone setters. And in that respect, this postseason is about their growth and tempering as much as it is for those younger and/or without playoff minutes. 

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The result thus far: After a pair of lackluster contests and some mock-able postgame comments early in the series, KAT was roasted in the local and national media for 48 hours, then emerged with a stellar performance that keyed the Wolves’ victory in Game 4. It was an important trial-by-fire that should improve his reputation and fortify him internally. 

Despite issues with rebounding, off-ball defense and isolation offense, Ant is using his first postseason as a launching pad. His shooting prowess has improved in the postseason crucible, and the forum has not overwhelmed him at age 20. On the contrary, it will almost certainly hasten his development and set him up for a more prominent, productive role on the team and in the league for years to come.

The results for DLo have been more checkered. The shooting woes have been cited. On the plus side, it was supposed that opponents would target his mediocre on-ball defense, but his play at that end of the floor has been a pleasant surprise. Among the Big 3, however, he is the one whose long-term status feels the least assured. 

The series itself has been a jailbreak of good intentions running off a cliff. It is by far the fastest-paced of the eight first-round series, with the Grizzlies first in the frequency of transition possessions and the Wolves second. Out of that, the Grizzlies are third-to-last and the Wolves second-to-last in points-per-play in transition. Some of that is infectiously vigorous defense, and some of it is youth run amok.

It has been revealing watching how much of an organizing presence Patrick Beverley is on the court, even as he stirs hornet’s nests with the gleeful showmanship of a circus performer spinning plates on a stick. It has been fascinating watching different players’ reaction to adversity and/or greater exposure: The way Jordan McLaughlin simultaneously accelerates the pace and calms the turbulence of the offense. Malik Beasley, the three-point chances diminished, hitting the boards like a fiend. Vando always plays like it’s for his last meal, with all the pros and cons of that approach laid bare. 

And for many others, performances are still yet to be defined.

The needed adjustments: At the trading deadline, I argued for the status quo, on the theory that continuity would define the strengths and weaknesses of the current roster more thoroughly for the draft, free agency and the trading period this summer. The success of the team extending the experiment into the postseason brings a bounty of information and more clarity for the path forward. 

Meanwhile, the quickening of a team is at least as much fun, albeit with different rewards, as one expected to contend deep into the playoffs. On the one hand, you want a team that has an answer for Ja Morant, Desmond Bane and Brandon Clarke all at the same time, like you want an SUV that darts like a sports car, or a mate who is drop-dead gorgeous with a Ph.D. 

On the other hand, you’ve got a team that keeps revising your upward estimates without sabotaging your fantasies of their future; a team of distinct personalities — prickly, charismatic, gregarious, gnomic, placating — that has bonded like a troop of white-bread role players. A team that has put some flair as well as respectability on the long-tarnished Timberwolves brand.

Now the quickening season is on the brink. The needed adjustment is taking it to another game with resourceful synergy, or finishing clean with a quality performance.