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The Grizzlies and Wolves Are Flawed, but Damn Are They Entertaining

The NBA’s most electric first-round series has featured two young, imperfect teams, trading blows and highlights back and forth, and finding ways to shine bright despite their blemishes

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It never really gets quiet in Memphis. For a second late in the third quarter on Tuesday, though, it got close.

Just as they did in Game 1, the Timberwolves came into FedExForum and made the case that they, not the higher-seeded Grizzlies, were the flat-out better team in the most electric series of the opening round of the 2022 NBA playoffs. Minnesota pressed that case in the third, racing to a double-digit lead behind the hot shooting of Karl-Anthony Towns, frigid shooting from the Grizzlies, and a paint-packing defense that had clipped Ja Morant’s wings. After Malik Beasley’s banking runner put the Wolves up 13, the typically raucous cheers of the Memphis faithful were replaced by more muted murmurs—the unmistakable sound of a crowd beginning to think dire thoughts, to worry that they were witnessing the beginning of the end to a miraculous season.

With the season feeling like it might be slipping away, it fell to Morant—who’d been bottled up for a third straight game, with five missed free throws, five turnovers, and just 10 points on 12 shots at that juncture—to breathe new life into the Grizzlies using little more than a ball screen and a live dribble. And, as he has all season, holy shit, did he ever deliver:

It was the first dunk in four games for Morant, who’s had notably less burst since taking a knee to the left leg on a Towns screen in Game 2. It was also one of the coolest goddamn throwdowns in recent playoff history. It was a hardwood explosion, reducing Beasley to cinder. (“Poor guy,” Desmond Bane said after the game. “Just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”) It was a shot of adrenaline straight into Memphis’s heart, and it broke the mounting tension in the building, giving the capacity crowd something to rally around—fresh hope that the Grizz, who climbed out of separate 25-point holes to win Game 3 just five nights earlier, might have another big comeback in them.

As it turns out, they did—a 32-17 closing kick over the final nine and a half minutes, fueled by Memphis’s trademark aggression on the defensive end, the offensive glass, and in the paint, and capped by a beautiful play drawn up by head coach Taylor Jenkins.

Kyle Anderson’s cut brings Towns to the weak side, drawing a 7-foot impediment with 11 blocks through five games out of the action. Bane’s screen gets Morant a clean release to the ball. Anthony Edwards, who had just knotted the game with a cold-blooded corner 3 off a brilliant call by Wolves head coach Chris Finch, decides to defend the pass on the high side and gamble for a steal, which backfires completely, allowing Ja to catch and sprint into a straight-line drive to the paint for an acrobatic, game-winning, off-hand finish around Jarred Vanderbilt. Grizzlies win, 111-109, to take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven set; they’ll have a chance to finish the Wolves off in Game 6 on Friday.

It wasn’t a particularly pretty win for the Grizzlies, who shot just 41.5 percent from the field, 7-for-28 from 3-point land, and had a ghastly 13 missed free throws. Linchpin big man Jaren Jackson Jr. also once again struggled to make an impact on the game due to foul trouble. (The All-Defensive Team candidate logged a mere 18 minutes before picking up his sixth personal with just under seven minutes to go; through five games, he’s got just three fewer fouls than rebounds.) But despite Towns popping for 28 points with 12 boards, Edwards kicking in 22, and Minnesota both outshooting Memphis from everywhere on the court and making seven more 3-pointers, the Grizz still got it done by buying in bulk.

All season long, Jenkins’s club has focused on winning the possession game: mitigating the lack of dependable long-distance shooting that is apparently contractually required of every Grizzlies team by making sure to get more bites at the apple than the opponent. Thanks in large part to the relentlessness of Brandon Clarke—nine offensive rebounds, including seven in the fourth quarter alone, and 15 boards overall to go with 21 points in 37 minutes off the bench—and the array of active hands that led the NBA in steals and blocks during the regular season, the Grizz finished Game 5 with 12 more offensive rebounds and six fewer turnovers than the Wolves. Those “gifted possessions,” as Finch called them after the game, allowed Memphis to take 11 more shots than Minnesota—critical extra chances for a team that managed a paltry 75 points per 100 possessions in the half court in Game 5, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Memphis also attempted 15 more free throws than Minnesota, including a 17-5 edge in the fourth quarter. A disparity that significant will arch some eyebrows—especially since it comes after Jenkins got himself fined $15,000 for criticizing what he called “inconsistent, arrogant” officiating in Game 4, in which the Grizzlies were whistled for 10 more fouls than the Wolves. The greatest driver/beneficiary of that advantage was Morant, who attempted 17 free throws in Game 5, including 10 in the final six minutes alone. (The Wolves as a team didn’t step to the line once down the stretch.)

Reasonable people can disagree over whether Morant got all those trips on merit—it looked to me like he got the benefit of the whistle once or twice on plays where he created contact before going to the ground—but that’s where the styles-make-fights aspect of the series comes to the forefront. Morant’s one of the league’s highest-volume drivers, and the Grizzlies generate paint touches more than all but a couple of teams; all that rim pressure’s more likely to draw calls in the fourth quarter than an approach like Minnesota’s, which tends to be heavily reliant on Towns pick-and-pops, Edwards stepbacks, and D’Angelo Russell pull-ups. Morant knows that, and after waking himself and the crowd up with his thunderous third-quarter-ending tomahawk, he rededicated himself to attacking the basket in the fourth, repeatedly splitting traps and doubles to collapse the Wolves defense and create scoring chances:

Before the dunk, Morant was just 4-for-12 from the floor and 2-for-7 at the foul line. After, though: 5-for-10 from the floor, 9-for-10 on freebies, and that one massive 3 to give Memphis the lead with just over a minute to go. After KAT shushed the FedEx Forum crowd and put Minnesota up by 13 again, Ja outscored the Wolves by himself, 18-17. After Patrick Beverley tossed in a hook shot over Morant and promptly proclaimed him too small, Ja outscored the Wolves, 13-8.

The game—and potentially the series, since the winner of Game 5 of a tied series has advanced more than 82 percent of the time in years past—was hanging in the balance. So the 22-year-old, who played the entire second half without a breather, went and took it.

Morant scored 18 points in the fourth quarter, etching his name above Zach Randolph’s on one page of the Grizzlies’ postseason record book. He finished with 30 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists, and three steals in 45 minutes of work to get the Grizz within one win of the franchise’s first series victory since 2015. The Wolves—down a game despite looking for large chunks of this series like the better team—will do their damnedest to forestall that celebration, and send the series back to Memphis for a Game 7.

To do that, they’ll need more playmaking from Edwards (zero assists in 35 minutes on Tuesday), a more assertive and productive Russell (shooting just 10-for-37 inside the arc in this series), less tunnel vision from both (they combined for nine shots to Towns’s three over the final eight minutes, though Ant insists they’re looking to share), and KAT to stay in rhythm and out of foul trouble. Continued positive minutes from reserves like Jordan McLaughlin, Taurean Prince, and Naz Reid would help a ton. And, hey, as long as we’re asking for things: Fewer than 20 turnovers would be great, too.

Minnesota probably won’t get all of that, of course, just as Memphis isn’t likely to get a hot shooting game from Dillon Brooks and Jackson Jr. avoiding foul trouble; these are, after all, two young teams that struggle at times with consistency—if not of effort, then at least of production. That’s why this is the most entertaining series going, though: because of all the flaws and imperfections on both sides.

These are two young teams learning their limits in real time, playing like their hair’s on fire, and occasionally screwing up, and having to try to overcome their mistakes through the judicious application of their mammoth talent. Sometimes, those efforts don’t look so hot. Sometimes, though, the result—like Ja’s end-of-the-third devastation—will take your breath away.