MINNEAPOLIS – Ahead 3-2 in their first-round playoff series against the Timberwolves, conventional wisdom suggests the Grizzlies have two chances to secure the one victory they need to advance.
Except there’s hardly been anything conventional about this series.
And none of the Grizzlies are buying into that bit of wisdom, either, as the scene shifts to Target Center for Game 6 on Friday with a shot to close out the Timberwolves.
In other words, the first step toward eliminating Minnesota requires the Grizzlies to vanquish any thought that they have a subsequent decisive game Sunday in Memphis to fall back on.
If you have a chance to close out an opponent in a playoff series, you’ve got to try to take advantage. We don’t, obviously, want this to go to a seventh game.
“You’re just trying to approach it – you don’t want to give a team like that any life,” Grizzlies guard Tyus Jones said of facing the Timberwolves in Game 6. “If you have a chance to close out an opponent in a playoff series, you’ve got to try to take advantage. We don’t, obviously, want this to go to a seventh game.”
Although historical statistics side with the Grizzlies in a situation such as this one, this series had been anything but predictable through the first five games. Each team has already won once on the opponent’s home court. The series has produced 258 total fouls called through five games – significantly more than any other current first-round playoff matchup.
And drastic momentum swings have contributed to lopsided outcomes in the first two games. Then there was an epic, 26-point comeback victory by Memphis in Game 3, a one-point win by Minnesota in Game 4 and another rally from a double-digit deficit by the Grizzlies to win Game 5 on Ja Morant’s layup with one second remaining.
Both teams remain confident they will prevail and win this series.
Neither team has yet to play a complete game to their potential.
But the No. 2-seeded Grizzlies have the luxury of homecourt advantage against the No. 7-seeded Timberwolves, and have two opportunities to put this series away. Throughout NBA playoff history, 85 percent of teams holding a 3-2 lead have gone on to win the series.
The Grizzlies didn’t return to Minnesota looking to take anything for granted.
We’re going to have to continue to build on each game. We did a great job from Game 4 to Game 5. The level of urgency, physicality, focus and edge were tested. We’ve had it for spurts, but definitely not for 48 minutes for both of those games. This time of the year, against a very competitive Timberwolves team, with a really good offense, a good defense, good coaching (and) really good players, we’re going to need our best effort, especially when you’re up 3-2.
The Grizzlies’ collective resolve has led to favorable results. One constant for Memphis in this series has been its ability to finish strongly, which has twice allowed it to overcome double-digit deficits to squeeze out victories.
Case in point: the Grizzlies lead all NBA playoff teams so far in fourth quarter scoring with an average of 31.6 points in the final frame. Over the course of those final 12 minutes, they are outscoring the Timberwolves by an average of 8.8 points, which is the second-largest disparity in fourth quarter scoring among all series this postseason.
Morant’s theatrics in Game 5 provided the latest example of his team’s closing spurts. Winner of this season’s NBA Most Improved Player award, Morant scored 18 of his game-high 30 points in the fourth quarter on Tuesday as the Grizzlies rallied to win from 13 points down.
But the Grizzlies would rather not continue flirting with danger. Friday’s mission is to take a more deliberate approach from the outset instead of relying on a dominant charge at the finish.
Offensively, we’re pushing the pace, trying to get out and run, and that’s our best basketball – when we can get out in transition, catch lobs and run.
“Defensively, we’re pretty sound early (forcing) turnovers,” Grizzlies center Xavier Tillman said of getting out to better starts. “Offensively, we’re pushing the pace, trying to get out and run, and that’s our best basketball – when we can get out in transition, catch lobs and run.”
Memphis will likely be without one of its best lob finishers with rookie forward Ziaire Williams listed as doubtful for Game 6 with a knee soreness. Grizzlies center Steven Adams, a starter this season who fell out of the rotation because of matchup problems this series, was ruled out of Friday’s game while under the league’s health and safety protocols.
Jenkins was already on the verge of tinkering with a tighter rotation anyway and had primarily used seven players for the second half of Tuesday’s win. Still, the Grizzlies remain committed to getting forward Jaren Jackson Jr. going after his struggles through the first five games of the series. He’s fouled out twice and is averaging just 10.8 points and 5.8 rebounds in 22.6 minutes.
You’ve got to be better.
“I’ve just got to play smarter – say all you want about (foul) calls, but you’ve got to be smarter and I’ve got to own it myself,” Jackson said of taking accountability. “You’ve got to be better.”
Jenkins knows the Grizzlies can’t reach their potential – in this series or beyond – if Jackson isn’t available and active on both ends of the floor, particularly as a defensive catalyst.
He’s still got to find a way. We’re big believers in what he can do for us. He’s just got to keep learning and growing, knowing that he can have a significant impact on this series for us.
“Just keep trusting him, just keep telling him to keep putting in the work (and) that’s what we’re doing,” Jenkins said of Jackson, who led the league in blocks this season and is a candidate for the NBA’s All-Defensive Team. “He’s still got to find a way. We’re big believers in what he can do for us. He’s just got to keep learning and growing, knowing that he can have a significant impact on this series for us.”
There’s no better time than now, as the Grizzlies look to put away the pesky Timberwolves.
Not give them too much life. Go ahead and come out and play hard. Play with energy. Start early.
“We’ve just got to have that mindset that we had going into Game 2 and (take it) into Game 6,” Morant said of the Grizzlies’ 124-96 blowout in Game 2 at home. “Not give them too much life. Go ahead and come out and play hard. Play with energy. Start early.”
The Timberwolves are the ones facing elimination in Game 6.
But to end this now, the Grizzlies must be the team playing with the most desperation.
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