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Moore: Why the Timberwolves Are Still Live vs. Grizzlies as Series Underdogs

Moore: Why the Timberwolves Are Still Live vs. Grizzlies as Series Underdogs article feature image
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David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Karl-Anthony Towns #32 and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

I knew what I was getting into.

When I bet the Minnesota Timberwolves to win their first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies, I expected it to be a frustrating bet to track.

The wager was made based on a few assumptions:

  1. Tactically, the Wolves matched up extremely well with the Grizzlies to the point of there being a significant edge not only in terms of forcing Memphis to counter (removing Steven Adams from the rotation) but then countering those counters (Minnesota hitting the offensive glass and punishing the smaller lineups).
  2. The Wolves were going to have one, perhaps two truly dumb performances in the fourth quarters of this series.
  3. Ja Morant would struggle with how the Wolves would defend him (40% from the field, 27% from 3).
  4. Karl-Anthony Towns would have to be the best player in the series.

We’re good on the first three. If the Wolves are going to make it out of this series, it’s going to have to be that fourth thing that gets them through.

When the Wolves control what they can control, they dominate. When they lose control, they completely fall apart in hilarious and wild ways.

In the five first halves of this series, the Wolves are +5. In third quarters of this series, they are +14. In fourth quarters of this series, the Wolves are -44.

Minus. Forty. Four.

You have to give a lot of credit to Memphis for seizing momentum and pushing to end these games. The Grizz absolutely jump on the Timberwolves when things get tight late in games and the Wolves do not have the composure to manage the pressure.

You also have to keep perspective that when Minnesota controls the things it can control, they win convincingly in this series.

  • Half-court Offense First Three Quarters: Minnesota: 1.11 | Memphis: 1.06
  • Half-court Offense Fourth Quarter: Minnesota: 0.98 | Memphis: 1.31

It’s truly amazing.

The good news is that you can feel good about Minnesota having a chance to win Games 6 and 7. They’ve had double-digit leads in Memphis two of the three games there. But they are 1-2 in those games because they can’t get out of their own way.

The bad news is that you can’t look at this and say the Wolves have gotten bad shot luck. The Grizzlies have the second-worst differential of any team between expected eFG% and actual, and third-worst accounting for the specific shooter in those shots, according to Second Spectrum data provided to Action Network. The Wolves have also shot worse, but not by as much.

The Wolves have done what they needed to do, gotten shooting luck in their favor, and still lost three of five because of boneheaded decisions.

Take this play for example. The Wolves get a stop down 1 with a chance to win the game. D’Angelo Russell (who torched the Grizzlies in the regular season and has been meh-to-bad in this series) has Desmond Bane on him, a good, tough defender.

Ja Morant is guarding Anthony Edwards here. Anthony Edwards! Morant is the easiest target given the Grizzlies are switching their pick-and-roll coverage. Edwards vs. Morant is a higher percentage opportunity.

If Russell runs pick-and-roll with Edwards to get the switch with Morant, then Russell vs. Morant is a higher percentage opportunity of resulting in a bucket.

But no, it’s DLo time:

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The Wolves could have made this extremely important play much easier on themselves. Even if the Grizzlies send a double, they would have a wide open catch-and-shoot opportunity with the ball in the hands of a good passer in either Russell or Edwards.

The Wolves just haven’t been worthy of trust that they’ll set themselves up for success.

In Yahoo’s Chris Haynes’ reporting on a players-only meeting the Wolves held this week, the word “ball movement” was shared in contrast to “hero-ball.”

What’s interesting there is it’s not necessarily ball movement that’s the issue. The Grizzlies abandoned Steven Adams after the first game, and have gone to switch-all. The ways to counter this are by getting Jaren Jackson Jr. in foul trouble (check), forcing help, then kicking it to shooters. But you do have to have some hero ball in terms of attacking the switch. You just have to have the mindset of attacking the weak point instead of trying to beat the stronger points of Memphis’ good perimeter point-of-attack defense.

However, I continue to believe that if you’re going to bet this series, you need to account for the fact that the Wolves control this series. If the Wolves do the things that are within their control to baseline competency, they haven’t just won this series, but won it by a margin. Their struggles have come in simply abandoning good basketball and situational awareness/composure in advance of their excitement.

This is absolutely something that Chris Finch needs to address, but it’s a difficult line to walk between trusting your players to make the right play and the risk of micromanaging. It’s easy to say outside the situation that Finch should be holding them to a strict standard, but that rarely works with modern NBA stars. They have to learn it on their own.

Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: D’Angelo Russell #0 of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Wolves are up against it in Game 6 historically. The Grizzlies are favored by 1.5-points, and road favorites are 34-9 straight up since 2003 per Bet Labs (79%), including 3-0 this season.

And yet.

If the Wolves do find a way to win what is a game with a very close spread, at home, they’ll be on the road for the dreaded Game 7. Since 2003, home teams in the playoffs have won 68% of the time overall. In Game 7s, the home team has won … 68% of the time in that span.

The number is higher for first-round matchups, as you would imagine (75%), but that may not fit as closely here if you believe, as I do, that the Wolves are closer to the Grizzlies than a typical 2-7 matchup would indicate.

Game 7s are discussed as a spot where home court advantage factors in most, but so much of that simply comes down to the fact that teams shoot better at home. If the Wolves have an advantage in 3-point shooting (Wolves 38.8% for the series, Grizzlies 34.2%) what does that mean for Game 7?

Minnesota to win the series is +500 at BetMGM, and while I won’t bet it heavily in fear of chasing bad money with good, I do continue to believe it has positive expected value.

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