All-Star guard Ja Morant believes one big difference between last postseason and these playoffs for Memphis: The Grizzlies now have playoff grit.
“Last year we were playing in. This year, we’re not,” Morant said.
The Grizzlies are young, talented, deep and more than a bit confident after going from playing their way to the Western Conference's eighth seed a year ago to the No. 2 seed — along with the NBA's second-best record — this season.
“Now, having that experience, I pretty much feel like we’re ready,” Morant said. "Not only on taking the leap to make it to the second round, but to the Finals.”
Bold talk for a franchise that has never started a postseason seeded this high.
This is the third time ever that Memphis will start a playoff series at home, the first with this next generation. The Grizzlies start their best-of-seven, first-round series Saturday hosting the seventh-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves in a matchup of the NBA's top scoring teams who also are two of its youngest.
Minnesota center Karl Anthony-Towns believes this is a great matchup for the NBA. This series features two of the league's most exciting, young players in Morant and Timberwolves forward Anthony Edwards, and Towns said these could be the NBA's next dynasties.
“We’ll go out there and make the ratings, and we’ll make the show happen," Towns said.
Whoever tunes in should be treated to a fast-paced basketball game as both teams like to get up and down the floor quickly.
Minnesota led the NBA averaging 115.9 points a game with Memphis second with a franchise-record 115.6 points. Memphis led the league in fast-break points (17.7) with Minnesota fourth (15.2). Memphis was first in second-chance points, Minnesota fourth. The Timberwolves led the NBA in forced turnovers with the Grizzlies third.
“It’s going to be a great series, a great physical match up for us, a great test for us," Timberwolves forward Jarred Vanderbilt said.
A year ago, it was the Grizzlies playing for their postseason lives beating San Antonio, then having to win at Golden State to earn the eighth seed. They even won Game 1 at Utah before losing the next four in a big learning experience for the Grizzlies.
Attention to detail is another area of growth. Morant said the Grizzlies are able to make adjustments during games rather than dwell on something for days at a time. He also sees the Grizzlies as being locked in as well on preparation, knowing what's required in the postseason.
This is Minnesota's second playoff berth since reaching the 2004 Western Conference Finals, and the Timberwolves haven't won a series since that postseason.
PAINT THE TOWNS
The Timberwolves managed to beat the Clippers in the play-in game despite one of the worst games of Towns’ career. He shot 0 for 7 from the floor in the first half and fouled out halfway through the fourth quarter with the Clippers using multiple defenders to disrupt his rhythm.
The Grizzlies are likely to lean on Jaren Jackson Jr. and burly Steven Adams to defend the two-time All-Star center.
Towns said he needs to play smarter, particularly if he finds himself in foul trouble again.
“If that’s how the adversity for me is going to be this time around, I’ve got to be very disciplined in showing my hands and just praying a lot and putting a lot of holy water on,” Towns said.
So much of the Grizzlies' offense comes from their defense, and they were pretty good in several categories. Memphis not only led the NBA in rebounds, blocks and steals per game, it became the first team to lead the league in those three categories in the same season since they became official stats in 1973-74.
LOW KEY D-LO
Towns is an high-strung player with a tendency to let officiating and the opponent get under his skin. Edwards embraces the spotlight and typically plays his best when the energy in the arena is pulsating. Patrick Beverley is the ultimate agitator, a motormouth and emotional leader.
That makes D’Angelo Russell and his cool factor all the more important to the Timberwolves, in addition to his shot-making and slick-passing abilities. Russell had 29 points in the play-in game, and he had a season-high 37 points in the last matchup with Memphis, a win by Minnesota on Feb. 24.
Memphis and Minnesota split the regular season series 2-2 with the home team winning each game. Memphis played all four games without forward Dillon Brooks. Now the Grizzlies' best perimeter defender is fully healthy and available after averaging a career-high 18.4 points a game along with 1.1 steals this season.
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell and AP Freelance Writer Clay Bailey contributed.