Timberwolves bounce back to down depleted Grizzlies, 119-97

Memphis provided a reminder Sunday of how grateful the Timberwolves should be for their health.

The Grizzlies entered the season with title aspirations. It was a common “bold” — or not so bold — prediction from national pundits that Memphis would finish with the best regular-season record in the Western Conference, the logical next step for a franchise that’s twice finished as the No. 2 seed in the conference and won a playoff series in 2022.

But, instead, the Grizzlies fell to 3-13 on Sunday, as they were blitzed 119-97 at home by Minnesota, who instead is the new conference front-runner.

There are certainly similarities and differences between the two organizations that have been mentioned in the same breath for various reasons over the past few seasons. But the primary separator this season, which again reared its head Sunday in Memphis, was health.

The Timberwolves (12-4) are currently missing just one of their top-eight players in Jaden McDaniels. Even Anthony Edwards, who was listed as questionable Sunday afternoon with back spasms, played and tallied 24 points, seven assists and five rebounds in 34 minutes.

Minnesota coach Chris Finch told reporters he was “not at all” surprised that Edwards was able to produce despite his ailment.

“Ant is a fierce competitor. He’s a gamer, he loves to play. He’s not somebody who’s ever looking for a reason not to play. Very pleased and proud of him for battling through,” Finch said. “In the end, he was able to shake it off and deal with it.”

McDaniels is the only player of Minnesota’s top-nine rotational pieces to miss a game yet this season. That’s remarkably good fortune for any team 16 games into a campaign.

Meanwhile, Memphis’ roster is significantly depleted. The Grizzlies were without six of their planned top-eight players Sunday, as Ja Morant, Marcus Smart, Brandon Clarke, Steven Adams, Luke Kennard and Xavier Tillman are all out of commission.

Five of those six are injured, while Morant is suspended for the first 25 games of the campaign due to his off-court conduct. What he’ll return to is still a major question mark. At 3-13, Memphis is already 4.5 games out of the final play-in spot in the Western Conference. Assuming it will take roughly 41 wins to reach the play-in, the Grizzlies will have to go 38-28 the rest of the way to reach the single-elimination pre-playoff tournament.

And it’s hard to see things getting better in the near future. Adams is out for the season. Clarke is out indefinitely. Smart is set to miss another month. Tillman and Kennard are week to week. The current active roster is Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr. and a bunch of guys you haven’t heard of.

The Grizzlies have quickly devolved from a “who’s who” to a “who’s that?” Sunday marked Memphis’ third straight loss of 20-plus points. At no point in the final three quarters did Minnesota’s advantage feel threatened.

Mike Conley returned to his old stomping grounds, where he spent the first 12 years of his career, and tallied 18 points — on six made triples — and 10 assists. Finch said it was a “point of emphasis” to feature the veteran guard offensively.

“The last few games, he’s only taken a handful of shots. That’s not good enough,” Finch said. “So I wanted to kind of get him going and feature him right away, and then they did a really good job of finding him throughout the course of the night in different situations.”

Karl-Anthony Towns battled foul trouble, but still finished with 18 efficient points and eight rebounds. Rudy Gobert and Naz Reid also scored in double figures as Minnesota shot 53% from the field and 44% from deep.

“I thought our passing was really good,” Finch said. “We made the extra pass, we made the obvious pass tonight. We didn’t fight the game.”

On the flip side, after getting torched by Sacramento on Saturday, Minnesota held Memphis to 39% shooting from the field and 27% from three.

“Tonight was a good test,” Conley said in his postgame, on-court television interview. “They have a lot of guys who pose a threat as far as mismatches are concerned and a lot of guys that can handle. Our ability to communicate and fight through screens and just fly across the court was evident tonight. It was the reason we got a lead early. Happy guys are learning a little bit.”

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