Five takeaways from the Memphis Grizzlies’ six-game win over the Minnesota Timberwolves in their Western Conference first-round playoff series, including their 114-106 victory Friday night at Target Center:
1. Clarke is Memphis’ first-round MVP
Ja Morant pushed Desmond Bane as the Grizzlies’ most valuable player in the series after Game 6, and his case was strong,
“If you ask me, the MVP of this series would be this guy here,” Morant said, pointing to Bane sitting next to him. “Time and time again he played big and made big shots for us. Even kept us in the game [tonight] and gave us head.
Bane led Memphis in scoring (23.5 ppg) and his 27-for-56 3-point shooting (48%) was like a flurry of body shots every time Minnesota started breathing easy. Dillon Brooks scored 23 in the clincher and chased Anthony Edwards for much of the series.
But Brandon Clarke, the 6-foot-7 backup forward for the Gonzaga Grizzlies, seemed to give his team everything they needed, at all times. Clarke had 17 points and 11 rebounds in the clincher and averaged 16.5 and 9.0 in regular season big boosts (10.4 and 5.3). Twenty-three of his rebounds came on the offensive glass, including five on Friday.
“His energy and activity were phenomenal,” coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We don’t win the series without what he did. … The boost he gives us from the bench, he runs the floor, he’s just “Johnny on the spot” wherever the ball is, a loose ball, an offensive rebound, a tap-out. His teammates have great faith in him as he picks and rolls. …and defensively taking on a lot of tough assignments – turning on guards, guarding Towns for a good chunk of the series.
Clarke was also in the middle of a decisive bucket Friday, when Morant put the assist in his hands and he passed to Jaren Jackson Jr. for the dunk that made it 108-104 with 36 seconds left.
“Tons of credit for him,” Jenkins said. “He definitely upped his game. He made a huge statement on the show.
2. Minnesota lost another lead in the 4th quarter
Never before in NBA playoff history has a team come back twice to win after trailing by 10 or more points in the fourth quarter. The Grizzlies ticked that box in Game 5, erasing an 11-point deficit in the 6:48 Final, after falling 16 points in the final period of Game 3.
So when Memphis reset for the final 12 minutes on Friday, down 84-74 on the road to a raucous crowd and a multifaceted Minnesota offense, the Grizzlies must have been thinking: get them where we are. want them.
It took Memphis just 100 seconds to make it a one-possession game at 85-82. They tied it at 94-94 midway through the quarter on a three from Bane. The Grizzlies let Minnesota off the hook briefly when they got just a single run on a flagrant foul situation 1 with 3:46 to go – Clarke made just one free throw and the Wolves rallied for their best defensive position of the night to thwart three quick-fire attempts.
At 3:03, Bane hit another 3-pointer and Ja Morant scored a layup that made it 103-99 with 2:25 to play. Minnesota, rushing and wasting three straight possessions around the same time, never led again. Everything Memphis had done late in games, it did again. Everything Minnesota had trouble with in the quarterfinals and games haunted it again.
How bad was that? In 18 quarters, one through three, of six games, the Wolves outscored the Grizzlies 519-490. Through the six fourth quarters, they were outscored 198-136, including 40-22 in the clincher.
“Obviously the wins were pretty lousy outside of Game 2, but we got it done,” Morant said.
It’s a resilient, if not risky, way to ride a streak and the Grizzlies know they’ve flirted with trouble. Hard to blame them, though, given how predictably Wolves were coughing up late runs like hairballs.
“I’m just deflating plays,” Minnesota coach Chris Finch said of the multiple meltdowns.
3. Welcome to the playoffs, JJJ
Jaren Jackson Jr. couldn’t get traction for most of the series, indulging in fouls that put him on the bench more than on the court for five games. But he stayed over 34 minutes in the Finals, scoring 18 points, grabbing 14 rebounds, sinking three treys and blocking a few shots.
“Yeah, it’s a good feeling to be up there,” said Jackson, whose father – a former NBA player – was in the house. “Still not satisfied. We have to keep taking the good and the bad in every game. Even when you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, you have to have the same approach, like even when it’s a good game, you just have to learn from it.
Jenkins took Jackson out midway through the first quarter with a single foul, avoiding his first-two pattern.
“His activity defensively, his discipline was really good,” the Memphis coach said. “He had a great stretch in the fourth quarter – loose balls, rebounds, verticality. … He just had a rebound game. Obviously a tough streak for him, but he kept going, was never beaten.
4. Lots of coachable moments for Minnesota
It’s too early to issue a referendum on Wolves’ season and status, but it’s safe to say the team have made some progress in their tough lessons against Memphis. Towns grieved for shaky performances, then fought back to earn new respect for a guy with virtually no playoff resume. Anthony Edwards showed raw potential, though his judgment and inconsistency helped turn games around.
Jalen McDaniels had a budding star outing off the bench in Game 6 with 17 points, four 3-pointers and a robust dunk right in the face of Jackson. The starting backcourt remains a problem, with Patrick Beverley past his prime as a full-time and irritating starter, while D’Angelo Russell seemed to shrink when Wolves needed him most.
“We’re still learning,” Finch said. “Playing in these high leverage situations is huge for us. I thought calmly, again we showed [a lack of] in our selection of shots in the fourth. It’s in our DNA right now. We know we have to learn from this, and not all of us can save the day.
“Moving forward we will learn and we will laugh about it, hopefully grow from it.”
5. Sleep fast, young Grizzlies
Bringing down Minnesota in six games instead of seven didn’t buy anything from the winners. They still face a Sunday morning at the FedEx Forum, only now it’s Game 1 against the fearsome Golden State Warriors (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC). That gave the Grizzlies about 39 hours between the final horn of a series and the opening tip of their Western Conference Semifinals.
“Go to sleep, wake up in the morning, travel,” Morant said, calling the series “draining.”
The visibility of the next round should be huge. Golden State, actually ranked lower, starts on the road. He brings a deadly new roster with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Jordan Poole and Draymond Green featured in their series against Denver. Memphis also found a troublesome unit when Jenkins used Morant, Tyus Jones, Bane, Brooks and Clarke in a small setup against Minnesota.
The Grizzlies are coming off their first series win since 2015. The Warriors have appeared in five Finals and won three in the same span.
“The confidence doesn’t change,” Jackson Jr. said. “We’re happy with the result, but we’ve always had the big picture since we’ve been playing together. It’s been a few years now… We’ve always aimed to go further than that. We never settled down. Keep thinking about the future. Exactly.”
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Steve Aschburner has been writing about the NBA since 1980. You can email him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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