Memphis Grizzlies (2-3) vs Minnesota Timberwolves (2-3)
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Last games: Minnesota W 106-96 vs. San Antonio on Monday; Memphis W 113-96 vs Sacramento last night
Minnesota is coming off their first two game winning streak since last March after soundly defeating two old Texas dynasties, the venerable Spurs and Mavericks. The Wolves appear to be operating at their highest level in years and sincerely seem to be enjoying playing together.
The Grizzlies bounced back from one of the worst losses in franchise history, a 104-64 loss to Chicago Saturday, by easily defeating a dysfunctional Sacramento team last night. Zach Randolph sat out with a sprained knee, and will miss tonight’s game against Minnesota as well.
The Key Questions
#1. Can the Timberwolves put it all together?
On Monday, Minnesota’s offense went off for 94 points through three quarters, before just scoring 12 in the 4th. However, the defense shut down San Antonio in the 4th, holding the Spurs to just 16 points.
Admittedly, the Spurs struggled to score in part because they missed shots in the final period that they were making throughout the rest of the game, but Minnesota’s defense also picked up quite a bit. If the Wolves can show anything resembling the offensive efficiency of the first three quarters with the defensive tenacity of the last one, Minnesota could pull off another double digit win.
#2. How big of an impact will Randolph’s absence have on the game?
During last year’s playoffs, Randolph was as unstoppable, efficient, and clutch for Memphis as any star for any team. His post game, which at first glance appears to be slow and lumbering, is actually quite fluid. His jumpers have range (and tons of arc) and he shoots them from so high above his head that even long, athletic defenders like Serge Ibaka were unable to block them. So yes, Randolph’s absence will be very noticeable.
But that doesn’t mean the Grizz are toothless without him. Marc Gasol is arguably the third best center in the league, behind Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum. Rudy Gay is back from his season ending shoulder injury last year. Point guard Mike Conley is back from an injury as well. Add a talented bench to the equation, and Memphis is still a dangerous team.
#3. Can the Wolves POSSIBLY win three in a row and (gasp) get back to .500?
With their next game on Friday at home against the Cavaliers? My head hurts…
The Key Matchups
Poor Michael Beasley. In two of the first four games this season, he faced Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Against the Spurs, he was matched against an inferior athlete in Richard Jefferson, but he was hampered by a hand injury. Now he faces Rudy Gay, a long, athletic scorer who can also defend. Gay plays like a poor man’s Durant…a good slasher and shooter, but also a bit of a ball stopper. Expect Beasley to have his hands full tonight.
Dante Cunningham started in place of Randolph last night, but Sam Young will probably get the lion’s share of the minutes at the 4, after dropping 20 last night on the Kings. Young is a very serviceable role player, another power forward with decent range, but he isn’t as skilled as Kevin Love, and very well might struggle to defend Love’s pick and pop game with Ricky Rubio.
Speaking of Rubio, this game will be another fun test for him. Conley is skilled and consistent, but not an especially exciting player. If Rubio gambles excessively, Conley may punish him, as Conley is a good jump shooter, but as long as Rubio plays safe defense, he certainly should find that guarding Conley is easier than guarding, say, Russell Westbrook.
Again, Memphis has a very deep bench, so don’t expect their game last night to affect them excessively. For the Grizzlies, Young, OJ Mayo, Jeremy Pargo, Quincy Pondexter, and Josh Selby have all proved effective this year as part of the second unit.
When writing the preview for Dallas, I was really hesitant to say “this is a winnable game.” It was just difficult to see the Wolves beating a team most people believed to be better. Sure, it was easy to see them keeping up with the Mavericks. It was easy to see them losing by five or six and collecting another “moral” victory. But to actually pull through, hit big shots, and win a game? It didn’t feel right.
Then the Wolves beat Dallas. And San Antonio. And in doing so, they seemed to change their own culture ever so slightly. Actually winning a basketball game no longer seems like an unattainable goal. Winnable games are actually winnable games, not just games that might stay close until the end.
So yes, tonight is a very winnable game for the Wolves. And the best part? We no longer have to expect the Wolves to lose winnable games. Sure, they might lose to a talented Memphis team. But if they win, it shouldn’t be a surprise. And THAT is a good feeling.