Timberwolves 101, Grizzlies 93: Playing with the big boys

Zach Harper —  December 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

We went through what the Memphis Grizzlies fans are going through right now. You’re without your best player and other teams are picking on you in the process. This happens because nobody in the NBA cares if you’re injured, sick, or apathetic. Show a weakness and any good team will come through and destroy you because of it. As long as they’re taking you seriously on the court, they’re going to bully you and be mean in every way they can to take advantage of the wounded animal.

It’s survival of the fittest. Sure, you’ll see the occasional team backed into a corner and claw their way out but that fight is only available so many times throughout a season, as we saw with the injured Wolves in 2012-13. Eventually, talent wins out and the injuries become too much to overcome. The Grizzlies don’t have Marc Gasol right now because of an MCL sprain and Quincy Pondexter is out for the rest of the season. That eliminates the best player and probably the best role player the Grizzlies have coming off the bench. They’ve adjusted to put up a decent enough attack, but the Wolves at relative full strength to their core should be able to capitalize and come away with a win.

The problem with Sunday’s game was that the Wolves seemed to play the Grizzlies like the team we’re used to seeing and weren’t able to adjust to their change of style within the game. Whether that’s coaching or executing or both, there was some disconnect that allowed a scrappy team to stay in for pretty much the entire 48 minutes. 

That’s not to say the Wolves played a bad game. They went into the Grind House in Memphis and won for the first time in a long time, breaking another embarrassing streak from an anemic stretch of franchise history that is finally being broken seemingly every few games with this Wolves team. There were a couple reasons the Wolves managed to break this streak with their play while almost allowing it to continue further.

The first big reason is the .gif’d duo above. Kevin Love slaughtered the Grizzlies in a way we hadn’t seen much before from him. Zach Randolph is a crap load of brutality to deal with on a nightly basis and Love has struggled to put up his typical production against such a physical interior defense. Not having Gasol available certainly helped take away the defensive help that would normally be there. Kosta Koufos is a nice role player but he had enough to deal with when Nikola Pekovic was in the game. When the Grizzlies replaced him in the lineup with Jon Leuer, they were able to stretch the floor a bit and gamble a little in trying to combat the brute force of the Wolves’ interior.

Love looked comfortable on defense against Zach Randolph, helping limit him to 7-of-19 shooting from the field. His defense against Z-Bo early was huge in thwarting the normal attack of Memphis and it eventually switched them to the lineup change that allowed the Wolves to close the game in the fourth quarter with a heavy dose of Pekovic.

LoveDefense1

On one of Z-Bo’s first shot attempts in the game, he took Love into the low block and went for a patented half hook that he softly dances on the rim before falling through the hoop. With his combination of power and shooting touch, it makes him nearly impossible to defend. The way you do defend him is 1) beat him to the spot of his shot attempt so he’s uncomfortable and 2) find a way to keep him off the offensive boards if he does miss. That’s exactly what Love did on this shot. He beat Randolph to his spot, causing a shot adjustment on the fly.

LoveDefense2

Love blocked Z-Bo on this baseline attempt because he once again beat him to the spot. Without Marc Gasol to stretch the interior (I’m firmly starting to believe this is a thing and will try to explain it in a separate post later this week), it allowed Love to concentrate on just stopping Randolph and not worrying about the consequences of the offense making him pay with adjustments. Love absorbed the contact from Z-Bo and recovered to contest the shot.

LoveDefense3

Love often struggles in the post when he keeps his chest back in an attempt to absorb contact. Since he’s not much of a shot blocker, that style of defense can hurt you against a monster like Randolph. Instead, he leaned in to absorb the contact while taking away space to get the shot off cleanly, and was able to both Randolph more than he typically could.

When the Grizzlies went small with the Leuer-Randolph pairing, it allowed them to be more versatile on offense, but it also forced Leuer and/or Randolph to be the person guarding Pek. In the fourth quarter when he had 12 points and six free throw attempts, it showed why it was a gamble that didn’t quite work out for Memphis. The Wolves also benefitted from Mike Conley missing a good chunk of that quarter because he destroyed them throughout the game.

Minnesota just kept giving him so much space to shoot. Conley is a tough cover because he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and he takes what the defense gives him. On top of that, he has one of the best hesitation dribbles in the league when he gets into the middle of the floor and he shredded the Wolves’ defense with it consistently.

ConleyDefense1

On this play, he went away from the screen and three Wolves players just watched him dribble into the lane. Granted, it was a quick move but Love has to leave Randolph to rotate over and trust that Kevin Martin will leave Tony Allen, drop into the paint, and cut off a pass to Z-Bo. Or that Corey Brewer will drop down and not worry about Tayshaun Prince in 2013. Regardless, those three guys need to defend it better.

ConleyDefense2

When Conley really got going, the Wolves just left him. Rubio got sucked in to helping on Randolph at the end of the shot clock and allowed Conley to slip away for an open shot from downtown. This wasn’t a one time occurrence either.

ConleyDefense3

Here Rubio is “defending” Conley but his hands are down. As much as you may laugh at the analysis from Mark Jackson’s days at the announcing table, not contesting shots against NBA players is typically a bad idea.

ConleyDefense4

Again, the Wolves got sucked into collapsing on the interior with a Grizzlies team that usually kills you inside and they didn’t adjust well enough in game to take away a player that started destroying them.

Overall, the game was a big positive. They won in Memphis and didn’t allow a wounded team to completely fight back. Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic were incredible and the team survived another poor showing from Kevin Martin. He’s had three bad games since a knee issue started to flare up (could this be the start of Martin’s 15-20 games he seems to miss a lot of years?). The team also got a nice contribution from the bench, even if it wasn’t totally consistent. There are things to correct still, but a win is a win and they ended up pushing a tough team around as much as they needed to do.

Zach Harper

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