A complete team effort helped the Minnesota Timberwolves defeat the Memphis Grizzlies 130-117 on Saturday afternoon. Anthony Edwards showed out in his first-ever playoff performance. Karl-Anthony Towns recovered nicely from a disastrous play-in game. Chris Finch and the Timberwolves put the entire league on notice with a convincing game plan that thoroughly dismantled a Grizzlies team that was 2nd overall in net rating over the last 15 games heading into the playoffs.
Celebrations are certainly warranted, but there is still a great deal of work to be done if the young Wolves want to have any hope to win this series. It was not all sunshine and merriment for Minnesota. Backup center Naz Reid‘s play was a clear detriment to the on-court product. It had the potential to become a disaster class were it not for the heroics of bench forwards Taurean Prince and Jaden McDaniels that helped mitigate an otherwise lack of size. This Grizzlies team will undoubtedly look to employ Jaren Jackson Jr. as a small-ball center often (he spent 40% of his minutes at the 5 this season, according to Cleaning the Glass), so Finch will need to counter this appropriately. Throwing Reid on the court does not appear to be the proper move.
Reid played only 5 minutes on Saturday and managed to rack up 3 quick fouls and 3 turnovers, all of which came before halftime. His -3 box +/- on the day does not quite capture how outmatched Reid looked while he was on the floor. Memphis is the league’s best offensive rebounding team, and their size and tenacity exposed Reid’s lack of physicality and otherwise diminutive play.
Reid has had ups and downs all season long. Reid was outstanding when he filled in for Towns in the play-in game against the Los Angeles Clippers. He had 8 points, 4 rebounds, and a +/- of +17 in 21 minutes off the bench. Reid is unquestionably in the best shape of his playing career, and his offensive skills have taken a massive leap this season. Despite all of this, his usage and minutes have been down this year, and his defensive liabilities have been brought to light when matching up against more traditionally big and physical teams. The highlights and poster dunks often mask these issues with Reid’s game, but there will be nowhere to hide in the national spotlight of the playoffs.
Reid is still young, and he has a great deal of upside matched with an ultra team-friendly contract. Changes to his game and play style will not come overnight, though. The Timberwolves will have to look elsewhere in this series to keep the matchup advantage. Jaren Jackson Jr. will not be in foul trouble every night, and Steven Adams isn’t likely to play as poorly as he did in Game 1. These players will punish Reid if they are on the court together, so Finch and the Wolves will likely continue to turn to McDaniels and Prince in a more small-ball approach to the series matchups.
That philosophy worked wonders on Saturday after Reid’s quick foul trouble. McDaniels was the primary beneficiary of minutes, and he played arguably his best game of the season: 15 points on 5-6 shooting, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks, and a +19 in 25 minutes. He is too small to play as a small-ball center, though he is a defensive menace and can guard just about any position on the floor. When his offensive game clicks, it creates nightmarish scenarios for opposing teams and their game plans.
Finch should also give Prince more minutes in the future as he works his way back from injury. In his first game back in over a week, Prince posted a quick 5 points and 2 rebounds in 12 minutes of action. It was a severely limited role for a player working his way back into the rotation. But given Prince’s 6’6”, 218 lbs. frame, he will stand to serve as an impactful defender at the 3/4 while Minnesota plays small ball to give Towns some rest. Prince’s three-point shooting is as reliable as it has ever been. According to Cleaning the Glass, Prince is showing 44% from the corner three. With his established role, he stands to be an effective shooter on the outside. His versatility will earn him meaningful minutes in this series, especially if Reid’s play continues to falter.
A perhaps less-heralded but equally important option for Finch and the Wolves is to play Jarred Vanderbilt more minutes as a small-ball center. Cleaning the Glass has a limited sample size of Vando’s performance as a center this season, but the numbers suggest that he can operate in this capacity. Here’s what we know, per their site:
Vanderbilt played 3% of his minutes at center this season (approximately 56). The Timberwolves were +17.4 in these minutes, while the team’s eFG% spiked from 54.7% with Vando as the PF to 58.6% as a center. That’s a stark change from last season, where Vanderbilt played 18% of his minutes at center, and the team had a 100 possession differential of -22.4. The Wolves were a significantly worse team last year, which is something that at least partially explains the paltry statistics. However, the role should not come as one that is unfamiliar to Vanderbilt.
Finch has plenty of options to be creative with how he masks Reid in this series. He has a room of power forwards who have showcased their versatility and willingness to take on the difficult assignments despite being a much-maligned positional group in the offseason. This assertion doesn’t even include the role of 3rd string center Greg Monroe, an experienced (yet dated) big in this league. Expect an increased usage of Vanderbilt, McDaniels, and Prince as this series grinds on. There will certainly be opportunities for Reid in the future, but this matchup against Memphis is too good to allow him time to get into a groove. Finch will need to stick to what works, and that unfortunately may mean removing Reid from the game plan.