After the Minnesota Timberwolves shocked the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 1 of their first-round matchup, the last thing you would think they needed was a spark to get them going. Anthony Edwards finally got the national media all hot and bothered with 36 points, Towns got the fans and media off his back with 29 points and 13 rebounds, and the young Wolves smacked the Grizzlies in Game 1.
Game 2 was the exact opposite.
Edwards couldn’t find a rhythm, Towns was again in foul trouble, and D’Angelo Russell has been incognito since his 29-point explosion in the play-in game. And we’re not even going to talk about that Game 3 debacle. Now that the Grizzlies have taken a 2-1 lead and the Wolves are left searching for answers, they need someone to come in off the bench and light a fire under the superstars.
That firestarter is Jaylen Nowell.
In December, the third-year Washington product was thrust into an expanded role when many of Minnesota’s starters missed time due to COVID. Nowell responded by scoring 29 points on 10-18 shooting and 6-of-9 from three in a shorthanded win against the Boston Celtics on Dec. 27. But every time Nowell flashes his potential and it seems like he’s about to take a step towards regular meaningful minutes, Chris Finch pulls back the reins ever so slightly.
Nowell has yet to see any meaningful playing time in the first three games in the playoffs. Still, if DLo continues to lollygag his way through the biggest games of his career, and Patrick Beverley is going to focus more on instigating the other team than making smart plays, Nowell may be the right man to step up and right the ship. Nowell has been a ghost in Minnesota’s first three playoff games, playing just 12 minutes of garbage time in Game 2. He didn’t play particularly well either, going just 3-of-10 from the field and missing all five of his threes for a grand total of six points.
However, when the Wolves were making their move to solidify their playoff standing after the All-Star break, Nowell was far more efficient and a big reason why Minnesota is the seventh seed. Nowell was a true spark plug in 20 games off the bench after the break, averaging just over 10 points, two rebounds, and two assists per game while knocking down 43 percent of his threes. He’s a true microwave scorer off the bench in the mold of Jordan Crawford and Lou Williams before him. Jim Peterson has said on Timberwolves broadcasts that Nowell has sixth-man of the year potential in his future. But his presence as a critical cog that could flip this playoff series is more important.
Nowell plays a much faster attacking style of basketball than any guard on the team not named Anthony Edwards. He finishes at a 69 percent clip when he gets to the rim as opposed to 67 percent for Russell, 61 percent for Beasley, and 57 percent for Beverley. Nowell has also been the best three-point shooting guard on the team, knocking down 39.4 percent of his long-range shots.
It will be interesting to see how Chris Finch adjusts in Game 3. Taylor Jenkins took his big, slow center, Steven Adams, out of the game after three minutes to run a series of smaller, quicker, more athletic forwards at Towns, with Jaren Jackson Jr. waiting to double. It worked beautifully in Games 2 and 3. The Grizzlies blitzed Towns, who shrunk in the limelight again instead of showing everyone why he should be on an All-NBA team this season.
Can deploying Jaylen Nowell keep Minnesota’s bench afloat while Ant, KAT, and DLo sit?
The Wolves and Grizzlies both have two of the best bench squads in the league, averaging 38.7 and 38.9 points per game, respectively, in the regular season. Minnesota’s bench outscored Memphis 40-32 thanks to a 23-point outburst by Malik Beasley in Game 1. Memphis got the upper hand 60-43 in Game 2 and again 41-22 in Game 3.
As the series goes on and the bench rotations tighten up, it will be imperative to reward those who impact the most areas of the game with more playing time. Nowell ticks more boxes than anyone else on Minnesota’s bench except perhaps Jaden McDaniels. Malik Beasley is an elite catch-and-shoot three-point shooter but that’s about it. Naz Reid has potentially played himself out of the rotation with an abysmal showing in Game 1 and meh performances in Games 2 and 3. Jordan McLaughlin is a scrappy defender and can get the Wolves into their sets but doesn’t bring much of a scoring punch. Taurean Prince is budget Jaden McDaniels who doesn’t airball as many threes, and Josh Okogie has hardly played since Christmas.
In front of an insane home crowd that hasn’t cheered this hard for their basketball team since 2004, Jaylen Nowell is the perfect shoot first, ask questions later firecracker who could blow the top off the Target Center if he gets hot. He could help keep Minnesota’s offense from stalling, as they did in their already infamous pair of 12-point quarters. A tight bench rotation of Beasley, McDaniels, and Nowell economizes Minnesota’s skillsets and should be just what the Wolves need to claw their way back into this winnable series. Nowell might not be one of the five most important players for the Timberwolves against Memphis. But if those playing in front of him continue to struggle, Nowell can step in and do what he’s done all season — ball out when his team needs him most.