Xavier Tillman Sr. came off the bench with force offensively and defensively for the Grizzlies, helping propel Memphis to a blowout win over Minnesota, evening the best-of-seven, opening-round series at one game apiece. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)
Terry Davis

Memphis hit Minnesota so hard with its bench that the resulting win now is recorded as the largest margin of victory in the franchise’s playoff history.

The Grizzlies matched and surpassed the Timberwolves’ energy, reeling in a 28-point win (124-96) and evening the Western Conference opening-round series at FedExForum at one game apiece.

“They did big time for us,” said Memphis’ starting guard Ja Morant, referencing the bench effect and particularly pointing to the group’s energy level. 

“A lot of credit goes to those guys. It allows us to not have to play a lot of minutes because we have so many guys who are capable of making plays and helping us win ball games.”

Ja Morant scores past the resistance of Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Malik Beasley. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)

The bench scored 60 points, with Brandon Clarke, Ziaire Williams and Tyus Jones each contributing 13 points.

So many different contributions,” said Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins of the bench play. “Obviously one of the biggest ones is (Xavier Tillman Sr.). So proud of him staying ready, coming out, making a tremendous impact defensively and offensively.”

Tillman had 13 points and 7 rebounds in slightly less than 21 minutes on the floor. Subbing for starting center Steven Adams, Tillman gave the Grizzlies a presence in the center position that had been lacking in the 130-117 Game 1 loss.

Jaren Jackson Jr. of the Grizzlies blocks the shot of Taurean Prince of the Timberwolves. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)

“Wild X (Tillman) appeared and got us going,” said starting forward Jaren Jackson Jr. “He’s doing what he does. I’ve seen him put in a ton of work, so I wasn’t shocked by any of it. It helped everybody out. 

“You’ve got to be ready when you’re called upon. Credit to him for being ready. He’s always ready. That definitely helped for sure. He came back in through the second punch, through the third. It was good.”

Tillman said staying mentally ready “is not that hard at all, especially with great teammates. … I had in mind if someone goes down to foul trouble or injury, be ready to go….”

For significant stretches of the regular season, Tillman was not in the regular rotation. “It has had its ups and downs,” he said. 

“I had a period where I caught my flow. I was taking advantage of all my workouts. Then I had the times, where (he thought) what is the use if I am not going to play. I was able to lock in … to get back on track. Coming in today, it was the fruits of my labor.”

Brandon Clarke’s dunk was part of a 13-point effort off the bench for the Grizzlies. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)

Detailing the bench contributions of the rookie Williams, Jones as a floor general and the effective second-half play of De’Anthony Melton, Jenkins said, “We’re going to need that. I think the biggest thing for our team was just everyone needs to play better, and I thought we got that tonight.”

Morant led the way with 23 points, 9 rebounds, and 10 assists. Jackson had a bounce-back game with 16 points, 7 rebounds and a block.  He played 26.5 minutes, with his ability to stay on the floor a vital part in the win. Sharpshooter Desmond Bane had 16 points, connecting on 3 of 4 three-pointers.

The win was Memphis’ first home playoff victory since Game 4 of the 2017 first-round series against San Antonio. The Grizzlies got off to a much better start than the 9-2 hole the team fell into in Game 1. And when Morant scooped in a layup the game was knotted at nine.

The pace was excruciatingly slow in the first three minutes, with five foul calls and two official reviews.  At the end of the first quarter, there had been 20 fouls called, with four Grizzlies (Jackson, Dillon Brooks, Clarke and Adams) having two each. An NBA record 33 free throws were attempted in the opening quarter.

Memphis weathered the foul storm and took a slim lead (33-32) into the second quarter (33-32). Tillman’s presence was noticeable as he scored seven points and racked up key rebounds. When Melton connected from deep, the Grizzlies grabbed a 10-point lead (44-34) with 9:04 left in the first half. Bane’s 23-foot jumper gave the Grizzlies a 58-44 advantage with 2:22 left. Memphis led 60-49 at the halftime break.

A key first-half factor was Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns picking up his third personal foul with 7:08 left. The Grizzlies outrebounded the Timberwolves in the first half (24-18). They only allowed 49 points in the first half compared to 41 points in the first quarter of Game 1.

Tyus Jones, a major contributor off of the Memphis bench, absorbs the defense of Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)

Memphis kept the pressure on, starting the third quarter with a 10-2 run capped by a three-pointer by Morant that forced the Timberwolves into a timeout with the score 70-51 with 9:32 remaining in the frame.

The Grizzlies got a scare at the 3:56 mark of the third quarter when Morant suffered a lower-body injury and hobbled to the bench with Memphis leading 87-63. Exiting the court, he returned to the bench area with a few seconds left in the quarter and the Grizzlies ahead 96-77.

Morant played four minutes in the fourth quarter and showed no signs of a lingering injury.

Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards, who was a major pain for the Grizzlies in Game 1 with 36 points, was held under his season average and finished with 20 points. Towns finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds.

As for the importance of the Game 2 win, Jackson said, “Crazy important, amazingly important,” quickly adding, “No highs, no lows. Stay level. It doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, it’s the best of seven. That’s all that matters. You’ve to win the game, so whatever it takes to get that win.”

Game 3 will be in Minnesota on Thursday night (April 21) beginning at 7:30 p.m. and can be seen on TNT and Bally’s Sports. The series returns to Memphis for Game 5 next Tuesday (April 26), with tipoff set for 7:30 p.m.

Tillman – for one – will be happy to get back to FedExForum.

“Every game so far this crowd has been amazing,” said Tillman. “When we go on a run, we can’t hear ourselves. We have to give sign language to get the calls. I can’t wait to come back here for sure.”