Who will win the first round series between the Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves? I don’t know, and also, that’s the wrong question. The real dynamic to watch here may be downstream of victory, sure, but as a neutral who just wants to see fireworks, the question is this: Which of this series’ outlandishly cool young killers will distinguish themselves and claim the throne as the 2022 NBA Playoffs’ breakout star? Round 1 went the way of Anthony Edwards.
The Grizzlies and Wolves are comfortably the two youngest teams in the playoffs, with average ages of 24 and 24.2 respectively. They are the top two scoring offenses in the entire NBA, and Ja Morant and Edwards might be the two most athletic players in the league. The most enjoyable part of the first two rounds of every playoffs is getting to witness a star-to-be breaking out, seeing which teams and players take the leap from intriguing to good. No other candidate really exists besides Morant and Edwards now that Luka Doncic is hurt (his two agonizing losses to Kawhi Leonard feel like wins anyway, somehow), and since they’re playing each other, it follows that one of them (or at least, one of their teams) is necessarily in line to make That Next Step. The Wolves made a statement in Memphis on Saturday, taking it to the Grizzlies’ fourth-best defense (This young team had a more efficient defense than the Miami damn Heat this year!) and spanking them, 130-117. Edwards led the game with 36 points in his playoff debut, scoring from everywhere and generally looking unbothered by the moment.
Edwards, who is 20, is now tied for the third-most points in a playoff debut, and he also became the third-youngest player to score more than 35 in any playoff game. His resolve to keep going at the Grizzlies was maybe the most impressive part of his afternoon. Memphis is relentless. They are a physical group that loves to fight and snarl and make everything difficult for the opposition. That ethos is applied on both ends of the court, as they pound the offensive glass, send forth guys into the paint on every possession, and ratchet up a level of muscular pressure to a level that only the most skilled teams in the NBA can match. Memphis is afraid of nobody, and they believe in themselves to a pretty shocking level. Watch them enough and you start to get the sense that Ja Morant not only feels he is the best player in the NBA, but that he might really be onto something.
After Minnesota leapt out to an early lead, the Grizz never blinked, mounting a big comeback in the second quarter, then keeping pace with an explosive Wolves third quarter. But rather than wobble under the pressure, the Wolves calmly executed their shit. Morant scored 32, though he faced a dense thicket of Timberwolves anytime he lanced into the paint in the second half, and the physical toll of repeatedly slamming into guys seemed to, if not trouble him, then at least tire him a bit. Edwards, meanwhile, spent the whole game creating and nailing difficult shots. Because he is a 6-foot-7 super-athlete, Edwards can find a somewhat open shot in basically any scenario. This is not necessarily a good thing, as his shot profile skews more difficult than it maybe should, and he takes a ton of contested pull-ups and off-the-dribble shots. The flipside, however, is that when he’s hot, he’s unstoppable. “I love my shots,” Edwards said after the game. “Whatever shot I take, whether it’s a step-back trey-ball or a step-back midrange or a floater or a layup—whatever my shot is—I like it. Sometimes, coach may not like it, but I love my shot. I’m just trusting myself.” For example, this is an unguardable shot.
The Wolves present so many problems to opposing defenses. D’Angelo Russell is a fantastic operator out of the pick-and-roll, and Karl-Anthony Towns can score from anywhere. They run Chris Finch’s sophisticated offense and engineer tons of good shots from cuts and split actions, and when things aren’t working out, either Edwards or Towns can take on defenders one-on-one. The efficacy of the Towns-Edwards dynamic will determine how far the Wolves can go, since the team really cannot defend well enough to afford many off-nights. As tempting as it can be to say Edwards should reign it in, his dynamism is a major asset for the team, not in spite of his propensity to let it fly, but because of it. Not only does everything unlock if he’s hitting shots, his irrepressible athleticism must be accounted for at all times, so you can never ever really leave him open.
Memphis shot poorly on Saturday, and their second-best player (Jaren Jackson Jr.) had a bad game, even if he also had seven blocks. The Wolves’ size gave the Grizzlies trouble, though one can expect some sort of regression as the series progresses. Morant isn’t going anywhere, and Taylor Jenkins knows how to make adjustments. Like the 2-7 series in the other conference, this matchup is clearly the best on its side of the bracket. Where the Celtics-Nets matchup has blood feuds and cranky old superstars, this one is its opposite, with 20-year-old Edwards and 22-year-old Morant leading their respective teams, and cool dads and cool dogs delighting everyone off the court.