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What the NBA’s fun-haters don’t understand about the Wolves. And why they have a chance against the Grizzlies.

Despite the Grizzlies’ lofty credentials, all season long the Wolves have been remarkably confident about how they match up with their first-round playoff opponent.

Patrick Beverley throwing his jersey into the crowd after the Timberwolves secured a play-off spot by defeating the Los Angeles Clippers at Target Center.
Patrick Beverley throwing his jersey into the crowd after the Timberwolves secured a play-off spot by defeating the Los Angeles Clippers at Target Center.
Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

Without getting too mushy about it, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ defeat of the Los Angeles Clippers at Target Center on Tuesday night was a cleansing of the ever-present specter of buffoonery and woe that has perpetually shrouded this basketball franchise. It was a ratification of legitimacy, a high-stakes win that demonstrated how grit and glitz do not have to be oil and water but can become a compound that greases the flow of a team’s competence and community and serves as a liniment in the deep tissue of a team’s collective confidence.

We know now that the feel-good story of the 2021-22 Timberwolves season has not been merely a palliative experience. People who cherish this team are not suckers swirling down an emotional sinkhole. The Wolves have punched their ticket into the playoffs, and what happens the rest of the way goes in the scrapbook as, at worst, lessons learned.

To those who have experienced NBA hoops at a more consistently luxurious level, the outpouring of emotion and glee from Wolves players and fans immediately after Tuesday’s win was regarded as excessive and unseemly. After all, gaining the seventh playoff seeding in a diminished Western Conference is a low bar by which to measure success. 

But not if that low bar is the first bar; not if the only other trip the Wolves have made to the playoffs since 2004 was as a team already in the midst of self-sabotage, diligently bashing square pegs into round holes while nodding with approval at the resulting carnage. 

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Unlike the myopic (and ultimately hypocritical) Puritanism of Tom Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler, this season’s Wolves have been allowed to savor their meager successes along the way for what they are: a wellspring that can help summon more strength and endurance down the line. Those who mock this methodology purposefully don’t appreciate the context in which the Timberwolves have existed since Kevin Garnett was traded to the Celtics in the summer of 2007. Frankly, they are invested in not caring about that context; it is literally beneath their concerns.

But those who have adopted this kind of “ring or bust” perspective of how to view and appreciate hoops have a context too, albeit one they would prefer not to acknowledge. Given how few teams and players are crowned and how many are busted, their imaginations are necessarily stunted by cynicism, and they are blind to the quickening of a team into a synergistic ball club. Even so, they too are prone to becoming suckers, willing marks for the type of cookie-cutter championship kits that were marketed by the Lakers and Nets this season. 

And now, here we are, with the Wolves and Nets both seventh seeds heading into the 2022 playoffs. But one of those teams and fan bases are experiencing a lot more enjoyment than the other. 

A frazzled KAT

Tuesday’s win over the Clippers was cleansing because the challenge the opponents were expected to pose was legit. First and foremost, Los Angeles did indeed deploy a phalanx of brawny, mobile, front-court personnel to invade the airspace and bruise the mindset of the Wolves’ best player, Karl-Anthony Towns. 

It was sobering to see how susceptible KAT was to the physical and psychological chaos generated by this gang-guarding strategy. By now, it is common knowledge that he is too easily aggrieved by the needling slights of aggressive contact, resulting in what he inevitably regards as unfair officiating. When he begins to play against the refs as well as the defenders, fouls and turnovers usually ensue. Naturally enough, opponents seek to increase and intensify this cycle.

KAT spent the week before the game brushing off concerns that this would happen. But the Clippers roster is exceptionally well-suited for the task, and the higher stakes of postseason play certainly didn’t help matters. 

Let’s not mince words here: KAT succumbed to stage fright. On his first possession, he dragged his pivot foot and was called for traveling. On his first rebound, off a missed free throw, his wayward outlet pass to Patrick Beverley just a few feet away caused D’Angelo Russell to make a diving rescue of the ball while flying out of bounds. On his first shot attempt, facing single coverage just outside the free-throw line by the much-smaller point guard Reggie Jackson, he probed into Jackson with his head and shoulders while retaining his pivot foot, then dribbled right, squared up and shot a 9-foot airball. 

Still looking for his first bucket on his fourth shot in the final three minutes of the first quarter, he drove past Robert Covington, came upon 7-foot backup center Isaiah Hartenstein, jumped in the air and awkwardly contorted his body in a faux-flailing motion as he put up a shot that had no chance of going in. The flail was in anticipation of coming into contact with Hartenstein’s inert armbar and when it happened he yelled out. When no whistle answered, he hopped up and down, arms outstretched, yelling “foul!” as he looked at one official and then another while the rest of the players moved the other way up the court. 

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Less than a minute later, he committed an offensive foul — his second infraction of the first period — and headed for the bench. Returning to the game in the second quarter, he committed two more fouls in a four-minute span, the second one a silly shove of a Clipper player who had already secured the rebound. At the half, he had zero baskets on seven shot attempts, four fouls, one rebound and one assist in 14:11 of play. The second half was better, but the quartet of first-half fouls left him no margin for error, diminished his defensive effectiveness and eventually led him to foul out with more than seven minutes left in the game. 

Vintage DLo

In this charmed, unlikely 2021-22 season, however, KAT’s deep doldrums became a blessing in disguise. In the weeks leading up to the play-in game, the Wolves’ “Big 3” had become KAT and the kinda-big 2. Anthony Edwards was still working out how to operate with the first chronically painful, but not permanently damaging, knee injury of his 20-year-old existence. And D’Angelo Russell had disappeared into one of the mysterious funks that have pockmarked his tenure with the Wolves and other locales around the NBA. 

Succinctly put, Ant was tentative and thus much less dynamic, while DLo couldn’t shoot accurately and had reverted to being a porous defender. Not surprisingly, DLo also became more guarded and enigmatic, his leadership less overt. 

But on Tuesday, they sparked a team-wide uprising that bailed out KAT and fostered the postgame delirium that the cynics loved to hate. 

Ant announced himself first, scoring seven points in the game’s initial two minutes on a rugged layup in traffic, a pull-up midrange, and an above-the-break three-pointer. Meanwhile, DLo began in playmaking mode, assisting on three-pointers by three separate teammates (Ant, PatBev and Jaden McDaniels) and fueling a layup by Jaylen Nowell via an early pass in transition. By the end of the first quarter, he had one point along with those four dimes. 

But with KAT ineffective and then saddled with foul trouble, the vintage DLo scoring package emerged: crafty and aggressive, with an inimitable jazz rhythm to its flow. Playing mostly with the second unit, he hit all five of his second-quarter shots: a step-back three; one of his patented, slow-motion up fakes, followed by a dribble-drive floater; a snake-down dribble between defenders leading to a fake pass to a cutter and a planned collision with the defender chasing him for an and-1 basket and free throw that put the Wolves back in the lead; a stop-and-go lark of indeterminate direction nearing the basket until he deliberately bounced off the defender and hit one of those sideways-leaning baseline jumpers; and, as the finale before halftime, a basic high pick-and-roll he ostentatiously called for, then splashed from behind the arc with a rapidity that took the Clips by surprise. 

Contributions from across the roster

When KAT fouled out, the Wolves were down by seven, 93-86, with 7:34 to play and the larger, more experienced Clippers seemed in command. What happened instead was some of the most satisfying hoops of the burgeoning Chris Finch era — a 13-2 run in a 3:32 span of postseason crunch time. 

Among the highlights was PatBev coming off the bench specifically to guard Clippers star Paul George, who is six inches taller and 40 pounds heavier. Even better was Beverley chasing after a loose ball so maniacally that Reggie Jackson was forced to foul him, leaving him prone and bashed against the front-row seats, legs up, ball in his hands. There was also DLo coolly strolling down for a pull-up three-pointer that gave the Wolves the lead. Sandwiched around that was a pair of classic Ant buckets — barreling in stride through George for a layup and the seizing on a seam in the Clips’ D for a monstrous slam that capped the run and put the Wolves up 99-95 with four minutes to play. 

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With 1:38 to play and the Wolves up six, DLo made an acrobatic steal and took the lone defender into the paint while dishing to Ant for a wide-open three-pointer in the corner. What would have been the dagger was instead a wild airball, well over the rim. A timeout was called and Ant walked toward DLo, a big smile on his face, and gave him an apologetic hug. At the tender age of 20, he seems forever impervious to embarrassment. The Big 3 had again rejiggered the dynamic, this time to a Big 2 and a reeling KAT. In postgame interviews, DLo was eloquent and credible in KAT’s defense, correctly noting that KAT had carried this team for most of the season and that the Clippers had organized their entire scheme around trying to stop him. 

Now it was time for the Wolves roster to carry KAT over the finish line and into the playoffs, and they delivered. Not just Ant and DLo. Across the roster, the Wolves played some of their best on-ball defense of the season, deploying both their signature “high wall” scheme and variations that called for more frequent switching. Malik Beasley capped his improbable defensive improvement with the most aggressive and savvy coverage he’s displayed during his tenure in Minnesota. Jarred Vanderbilt dogged Paul George and crashed the boards with his usual rigor but without the fouls or occasional clumsiness. McDaniels used his length to great effect and diminished concerns about the status of his recently injured ankle. Naz Reid was more of a defensive presence than usual, and Ant held his own guarding a series of forwards from the Clips’ formidable front-court contingent. 

In the postgame remarks, both Finch and Clippers coach Ty Lue specifically cited the enhanced physicality that the Wolves flexed in the second half. It was a grown-up team win laced with grit, glitz and justified exultation. 

An intriguing matchup

Tuesday’s win brings on a first-round playoff series with a team with the second-best record in the entire NBA, the Memphis Grizzlies. There wasn’t much luck in the Grizzlies’ 56-26 mark: They finished fourth in offensive rating (points scored per possession) and sixth in defensive rating (points allowed per possession). By contrast, the Wolves were seventh and 13th, respectively.

Like the Wolves, Memphis features a bright young coach in Taylor Jenkins, who has quickly fashioned an enjoyable culture and style of play. Their alpha star, Ja Morant, flashes a charismatic versatility on offense akin to a hybrid of DLo and Ant. They boast a deep, variegated bench of players who understand and execute their roles at a high level. 

Despite those lofty credentials, all season long the Wolves have been remarkably confident about how they match up with Memphis. The teams played twice in November, with the Grizzlies winning the first in overtime while the Wolves blitzed the rematch by a 43-point margin, 138-95. Memphis also won a mid-January contest that was their 11th win in a row at the time, before the Wolves evened the season series in February, when DLo went off for 37 points and PatBev limited Moran to 20 points on 7-for-25 shooting. 

There is evidence that both of those trends could continue. Morant shot just 33.8% from the field against Minnesota, his lowest versus any opponent this season. By contrast, DLo feasted on the Grizzlies — his 55.8% shooting from the field and 31 points per game in the four matchups with Memphis were both season-bests versus any opponent this season. Bottom line, the Wolves’ ability to put PatBev on the opponent’s top backcourt playmaker while freeing DLo to create on and off the ball on offense produced its greatest dividends against the Grizzlies. 

Of course, it’s not that simple. Although there is ample rest between games in the first round of the playoffs, being the primary Ja-stopper in a best-of-7 series is a taxing assignment for anyone, let alone PatBev, whose age (33, oldest on the roster), injury history and ultra-physical approach to defense require the Wolves to monitor his workload. There are decent options to spell him — Ant has done good but limited time guarding Ja, and McDaniels, Vando and, in a pinch, Josh Okogie, could all take turns. But all are likely to be less effective than PatBev.

As for DLo, a key aspect of the season series was that notorious Wolves-killer Dillion Brooks was absent for all four of the matchups with Minnesota. At 6-foot, 7-inches and 225 pounds, he logically would be utilized on Ant, but he has the agility and savvy to stay with DLo, and the Grizzlies may choose to utilize arguably their best on-ball defender on the player who has given them the most trouble. Memphis has another superb defender, DeAnthony Melton, who at 6-foot, 2-inches and 200 pounds is the more physically aligned matchup. But Memphis plays Ja at the point and prefers to have three-point marksman Desmond Bane beside him in the backcourt for floor-spacing on offense, so they are unlikely to start both Brooks and Melton. 

Other variables

Another key matchup is at center. The play-in against the Clippers was only the latest example of how opponents have much better success guarding KAT with quick, aggressive forwards and then doubling and tripling with a big man or a wing instead of going mano-a-mano with a hulking center. Stephen Adams is a prototypical hulk: 6-foot, 11-inches and 265 pounds of toughness who regularly is among the league leaders in offensive rebounds. There were games early in their careers where Adams destroyed KAT, but increasingly Towns and backup center Naz Reid have utilized their quickness and outside shooting to play Adams off the floor. He started 75 games for the Grizzlies this season, including the three contests when he was healthy enough to play against the Wolves, but was only slightly effective in one of them. 

Of course coach Jenkins can (and often has) simply shifted power forward Jackson Jr. onto KAT and left Adams free to roam while “guarding” Vanderbilt. Given that Jackson Jr. is himself 6-foot, 11-inches, 242 pounds and a candidate for one of the All-Defensive teams, that’s the natural move. But it also prevents Jenkins from resting Ja on defense by providing him with the Vanderbilt assignment, and you can bet that the Wolves would involve Ja — a subpar defender who Memphis does not want to get in foul trouble — in all sorts of actions involving Ant, DLo, PatBev or their own marksman Beasley. 

As opposed to the play-in, where you get one shot to win or lose, these are the kinds of flexible options that evolve over time in the playoffs, which features the intensity and strategic focus of a chess match. The fact that Brooks is now healthy creates all sorts of contingencies, and that is just one — albeit the biggest one — of the unknown variables that will go into player rotations and styles of play.

We do know that Chris Finch prefers continuity whenever feasible, going with what has worked for his team all season. If he was willing to ride with Vando at power forward against the Clippers rather than switching over to McDaniels or Taurean Prince (who was hurt for the play-in and may still be dinged up), we should expect the status quo at least for Game One on Saturday afternoon. 

We also know that Memphis is a team that loves to pound the paint on offense. Per the excellent analyst John Schuhmann, I know that the Grizzlies averaged a whopping 57.6 paint points this season, 4.3 more than any other team and the third-highest total in the 26 seasons that data has been tracked. That begins with Ja, who racked up 16.6 points on 20.9 drives to the hoop each game (again, from Schuhmann), the most of any backcourt player in that 26-year data trove. 

By my calculations, the Wolves held the Grizzlies to “only” 52 paint points per game, a mark skewed by Memphis scoring only 36 in that blowout loss to Minnesota in late November. It is notable, however, that the winner of all four games was the team that had the advantage on points in the paint. 

X factors

When it comes to other “x-factors” there are plenty of candidates. Former Timberwolf and Apple Valley native Tyus Jones had the best season of his career as the backup point guard — he’s primarily responsible for the stunning stat that Memphis won 20 of the 24 games in which Ja did not play this season. Even so, his size and style make it more likely that Jordan McLaughlin will see time, and J-Mac’s ability to negate the positivity of Tyus could be important. 

Then there is the random stuff that happens sporadically and would be significant if it cropped up again. For example, if Melton continues his torrid three-point shooting, you can keep his stellar defense on the floor longer. If the recent uptick in Beasley’s defense continues, he’s more likely to see crunch time minutes and caulk more seams in the rotation. 

But two other factors stand out. One is the Wolves’ inability to end possessions by cleaning their own glass. Memphis led the NBA this season with 14.1 offensive rebounds per game. The Wolves ranked 25th in defensive rebounding. One of the ways Brooks has always hurt Minnesota is via put-backs, and another Grizzlies forward, Brandon Clarke has (literally) followed in his footsteps with similar morale-crushing offensive boards that get transformed into second-chance points. The Wolves need non-frontcourt personnel other than PatBev to step up, including Ant, DLo and McDaniels. 

Speaking of rebounds, the biggest X factor for the Wolves in this series will be how well KAT can recover and hopefully thrive after his dreadful performance on Tuesday. It has been a glorious season for him thus far, one likely to earn him an All-NBA designation that will enable the Wolves to boost his salary and tie him to the franchise at a lucrative rate through the prime of his career. But the stage fright was palpable, and concerning. 

There is a scenario where KAT takes the words of DLo and others to heart: That his ineffectiveness stemmed from an opponent uniquely suited and completely dedicated to disrupting his rhythm. And now that he has seen how this roster can rise up and win a tough matchup without their best player playing up to par, he might quiet the internal dialogue and find a sustainable way through the cycle of angst and grievance that vexes his mind and hexes his performance. The way he started to operate in the second half on Tuesday — concentrating on rebounding, dishing the ball, and working deliberately for shots without baiting for whistles — seemed like a promising path. 

The noise will be there, and KAT must tune it out. People gravitate to drama. They appreciate the heart-warming narrative of a player who has fought through great adversity for much of his career, be it the “tough love” abuse of Thibs and Butler or the ravages of a virus that killed his mother and other relatives and inflicted him twice. But their senses also perk up at horror stories, be the decline of Russell Westbrook, the timidity of Ben Simmons, or the escapades of superstars on the roulette wheel in Brooklyn. KAT has the opportunity to put his own punctuation on this magical 2021-22 Wolves season. Let the cleansing engulf him and set him free to get the last howl. 

Need more Wolves? Join Britt Robson for a pre-game Q&A session on Monday, April 18 before Tuesday’s game against Memphis. This free event is open to anyone, but registration is required.