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I’m So Glad The Grizzlies And Wolves Found Each Other

Ja Morant lays in the game-winner for the Grizzlies against the Timberwolves
Justin Ford/Getty Images

At some point in the delirious late minutes of Tuesday night’s Game 5 between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Memphis Grizzlies—maybe it was during the seventh consecutive panicky, chaotic late-game possession by one team or the other, or maybe it was the 12th—it occurred to me that either of the teams would likely be on vacation already if they hadn’t lucked into each other in the seeding. Nobody knew what the hell they were doing! It ruled.

The Wolves had mostly maintained a multiple-possession lead throughout the second half, mostly by dint of Karl-Anthony Towns playing out of his mind and Jaren Jackson Jr. playing like he gets a $10 million bonus per personal foul. The pattern went like this: Memphis would scramble and flail around and back into a bucket or a pair of free throws, cutting the Minnesota lead to five or six; Towns would make an incredible shot to push it back to seven or eight; the teams would trade sloppy misses and turnovers for four possessions; the Grizzlies would cobble together another seat-of-their-pants score; Towns would make another bucket or (at Jackson’s expense) work his way to the free-throw line; and so on. Each time either team scored, it was like they’d done so via a monkey’s paw wish in exchange for forgetting that Towns was absolutely killing the Grizzlies: Memphis would score, and then forget to run a second defender at Towns, and he would score (or draw a foul), and then Minnesota would forget to run its offense through him, and Patrick Beverley would dribble into the middle of the paint and pass the ball to no one.

If the Grizzlies had lost a few more regular-season games, they’d have drawn the Nuggets in the first round. Nikola Jokic would have devoured their ragged, inattentive defense even more greedily than Towns did, and fed innumerable clean looks to teammates cutting behind or curling around ball-watchers. The Nuggets would not forget to run every late-game action through his hands, rather than stranding 20-year-old Anthony Edwards with his own worst untempered impulses toward hero-ball, as the Wolves did.

Speaking of letting Edwards play hero-ball, that actually bore fruit, for a moment! With the Wolves up one point and around 3:30 left to play, Edwards shook loose from Desmond Bane with a slick little left-to-right crossover at the right free-throw line extended and splashed a lovely hanging jumper to push the lead back to three. Unfortunately this seemed to give Edwards the Wrong Idea: Less than a minute later he chucked up a horribly ill-advised, closely contested pull-up three from the top of the key with around 10 seconds left on the shot-clock, and bricked it. A little over a minute after that, with the Wolves hanging onto a two-point lead, he dribble-dribble-dribbled himself into a dreadful, out-of-control floater over three defenders (the Grizzlies converged on him because everybody in the building knew he was going to shoot no matter what) near the right block, and bricked it. More on him in a second. If the Wolves had won a few more games, they’d have drawn the Warriors in the first round, and this kind of thing would have gotten them vaporized by a billion points. What I am saying is that either of these teams could get steamrolled by any other of the West’s playoff teams, except maybe the Pelicans.

That’s not, I hope, a condemnation of either the Grizzlies or the Timberwolves. They’re very young, is the deal, and How To Win In The Playoffs is a real thing that nearly all players (leaving aside, like, Tim Duncan) have to learn through trial and error. The stuff that won the Grizzlies the second-best record in the West this season might make them a tough out for anybody, but overwhelming likelihood is that an experienced opponent not playing its first playoff series in four years simply would have cruised out of reach on Tuesday night, during all those second-half minutes in which Memphis had no particular plan other than for Ja Morant to hurl himself into a thicket of defenders and hope this somehow magically led either to a Bane three-pointer or a Brandon Clarke offensive rebound. Imagine how depressing it would be to watch these bouncy, fun-loving young Grizzlies get pushed around and gentleman-swept by the dour, miserable Utah Jazz. Blech.

Instead, the equally green and bushy-tailed Wolves let the Grizzlies hang around a couple baskets behind—long enough for Morant, who’d struggled through the first three-and-a-half quarters, to finally find some pathways through the chaos. In the game’s first 42 minutes, he hit just six of 17 field-goal attempts (plus a brutal 2-for-7 from the free-throw line to boot) and scored 14 points.

(Sure, OK, yes, one of those six made baskets was this …

… but the point stands!)

In the game’s final six minutes, he made three of five shots, nine of 10 free throws, and outscored the Timberwolves 16-10. He hit a tough floater to cut Minnesota’s lead to one. He drew Beverley’s fifth and sixth fouls, sending Minnesota’s most experienced postseason veteran out of the game. With around a minute left to play, he hit a gutsy three from the top of the key to give the Grizzlies their first lead since late in the first quarter.

The last of his buckets came just after Edwards redeemed himself with a cool, clutch, game-tying corner three with 3.7 seconds left to play—an opportunity Edwards got because the young Grizzlies freaked out and lost track of him while panicking at a screen-and-roll they should have calmly funneled to the rim. Poor Edwards—again, 20 years old! Very young and inexperienced and easy to forgive for this kind of thing!—promptly returned the favor, insanely, running himself out of position to try for a hopeless steal on the ensuing inbounds play, leaving Morant a mile of runway for this:

That was the game-winner, for the sloppiest, most ridiculous, and most fun game of these playoffs’ most fun series. It wouldn’t have been possible if both teams were not absolute doofuses. Sadly, they can’t play each other 39 more times in these playoffs; they may meet again in some future spring, but they’ll never be quite this goofy again. Savor it while it lasts!

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