Five takeaways from the Memphis Grizzlies’ 111-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 5 Tuesday night at FedEx Forum to take a 3-2 lead in their Western Conference first-round playoff series:
Big things come from small lineup
Comedian Steve Martin released an album a lifetime ago entitled, “Let’s Get Small.” Everybody is familiar with the fast-food option to “super-size” an order. Mash them together and you’ll get what Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins referred to as his “super, super small” lineup.
The only thing better would have been Jenkins going all in by dubbing it his “super-duper small” lineup. Because that’s what the results were.
Necessity can be the mother of coaching brilliance when it leads to a tweak or substitution that proves golden. That how thing went for Memphis when starting big man Jaren Jackson Jr. fouled out with 6:58 left in the fourth quarter and Jenkins replaced him with … point guard Tyus Jones?
Jones is a bonafide NBA backup, a veteran who spells Ja Morant and generally keeps Memphis’ offense flowing. He’s also 6-feet tall, which makes for a little backcourt when he and Morant are on the floor together.
Add guard Desmond Bane (6-foot-5) and forwards Dillon Brooks (6-7) and Brandon Clarke (6-8) and it’s an undersized group by NBA standards. Granted Minnesota isn’t exactly Cleveland (three 7-footers across its front line), but when Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns is lathered up and rolling, it’s still a pretty big ask for a little lineup.
So what happened? Memphis outscored Minnesota in the fourth quarter 37-24. The Grizzlies erased the Wolves’ 11-point lead from that point, 99-88. They bothered the visitors into 8-of-24 shooting in the quarter and outrebounded them 18-10.
“We’ve talked about using lineups like that,” Jenkins explained. “As we’re reading the game, reading he lineups and [seeking] a spark we might need.”
Jenkins dabbles with the combination occasionally, including several minutes scattered across the first three quarters. Using Jones with Morant takes some playmaking pressure off the Grizzlies’ All-Star. It also helps Memphis put more pace and energy into the game, the coach said.
“It seems like it was working out tonight,” Clarke said. “You can put a guard on KAT a times. We’ve got guards who can guard bigs. We’ve got guys who really, really want to win. You can put out any five you want.”
Minnesota tried to assert Towns’ size by moving him from the perimeter to “the nail,” basically the middle of the foul line.
“They can’t double me in the post like that, they can’t double me at the nail,” he said. “I feel very confident with anyone in the world guarding me. We saw something as a team. We went with it late in the game. It worked, but we’ve got to make the shots.”
Dunk for show, finger-roll for dough
Morant’s monstrous dunk near the end of the third quarter will get the poster and most of the social-media love. And why not? It was a remarkable slam, with Morant basically leaping over Minnesota’s Malik Beasley, cranking the ball far back, then flushing it down and through to rouse a flat home crowd.
But his field goal that won the game – his dash up the lane for a finger-roll layup with 1.0 second left – was as special in its own way. And it was born from the most simple directive, to hear Morant tell it.
The play drawn up by Jenkins: “Go get a bucket, Ja,” according to Morant
— NBA (@NBA) April 27, 2022
Morant already had scored 11 consecutive points to haul Memphis from a 101-98 deficit to a 109-109 tie. With 3.7 seconds left, Grizzlies ball, there was no guesswork who would get it again on the side-out-of-bounds play.
Anthony Edwards, who had tied it with a stunning 3-pointer moments before, was charged with shadowing Morant on the final play. Only he let Morant get inside position as they circled near the 3-point line. Then Edwards lunged for Bane’s pass.
“I had already had my mind made up that I was going to try to steal it,” Edwards said. “Dumb mistake. It’s over though. Can’t do nothing about it.”
— NBA (@NBA) April 27, 2022
Morant burst to the rim, twisted around Jarred Vanderbilt and dropped in the game-winner. At the horn, Clarke wrapped up his teammate in a bear hug.
“I was like, ‘Thank God that we got you and thank God that you’re as good as you are,’” Clarke said he told Morant.
Even a rival coach with his own game to worry about was wowed.
“You’ve got to be kidding me”
— NBA (@NBA) April 27, 2022
The Wolves keep learning the same hard lesson
So the Grizzlies are the first team in NBA history to come back in multiple games of a playoff series from double-digit, fourth-quarter deficits and win.
The Grizzlies are first team in NBA history to have multiple fourth-quarter double-digit comeback wins in the same playoff series ?
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) April 27, 2022
That means the Timberwolves are the first team in league history to blow double-digit, fourth-quarter leads in multiple games in a series and lose.
In Game 3, Minnesota twice had leads of 25 points or more – once in each half – before melting down in a nine-point loss. In Game 5, the Wolves were up 11 with 6:48 left – until Morant’s 25-footer flipped Memphis in front with 1:03 lefgt, 107-106.
“Just 48 minutes. You can’t be satisfied with a win until the buzzer goes off,” Towns said. “It takes all 48. We learned that last game, just didn’t get it done.”
Edwards’ 3-pointer out of a timeout to tie with 3.7 seconds left had the Wolves, blown lead and all, relieved that they would get five more minutes in overtime to salvage a victory. Then all of a sudden, they didn’t.
“You look at the stat sheet, you get confused who won and who didn’t,” Towns said.
Let’s see, the Wolves outshot the Grizzlies from the arc. But they had 11 fewer shots overall, got outrebounded 53-42, gave up 18 offensive boards, sent Memphis to the line 39 times to their own 24 and committed 23 turnovers. So not really confusing at all.
The Clarke-Morant connection is real
None of this happens for Memphis if not for Clarke, the third-year forward from Vancouver, British Columbia, by way of Gonzaga. Clarke plugged the hole at center off the bench, taking Steven Adams’ and Xavier Tillman’s minutes to score 21 points with 15 rebounds. Nine of those were offensive rebounds, seven in the fourth quarter alone.
Clarke also has a productive relationship with Morant, a positive one in terms of points per possession of which they’re both quite aware. Said Clarke: “I told Ja that every time he drives, I’m going to be there. ‘So just shoot it.’ I told Des, ‘I’m going to be there whether you pass to me or shoot it.’”
If Clarke can’t grab a rebound, he is adept at smacking it out to the perimeter where Morant and Bane can corral it and reset.
Said Towns, who called Clarke’s nose for missed shots “magical”: “He just knows where to go. He’s always in the right spot at the right time.”
Faster starts vs. stronger finishes
The Grizzlies want to start faster. The Wolves know they must finish better. Which one seizes its opportunity in Game 6 Friday in Minneapolis likely will determine whether the Grizzlies advance that night or the Wolves force a Game 7 Sunday back in Memphis.
“Me personally I’m tired of it. Tired of playing from behind,” said Morant, who was exhausted afterward. “The last three games, we haven’t played our basketball.”
Minnesota has in stretches, just not to completion in Games 3 and 5. Something’s got to give Friday.
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