MINNEAPOLIS — The job was almost finished, and Memphis Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane looked out across the court, flashed a triumphant smile and wiggled his eyebrows.
The Grizzlies had overcome not one but two deficits of more than 20 points. They had fallen behind by 26 points early in the second quarter, pushed around by a punishing Timberwolves defense, but punched back and cut the deficit to 7 at halftime. A 15-0 run that helped them do it included three 3-pointers from Bane.
But it didn’t stick.
The Grizzlies trailed by 25 with 3:10 left in the third quarter, and Coach Taylor Jenkins screamed “one possession” through the deafening roar in the building. He reminded his team to focus on each possession instead of the daunting deficit.
With each Grizzlies stop the arena got quieter. They outscored the Timberwolves, 50-16, over the rest of the game, again with Bane’s help from deep and an unyielding defensive effort that allowed only 12 fourth-quarter points.
The Minnesota crowd filed out of the building, stunned by a result they half expected from years of Timberwolves futility. The Grizzlies love to boast when they’ve earned it, and Thursday night they certainly did.
“I ain’t never been down 20 twice and won,” Bane said. “It was just a weird game. It was a weird game.”
The attention that comes the Grizzlies’ way often focuses on Ja Morant, the effervescent 22-year-old point guard whose dunks seem to be aided by a pogo stick. But Morant has spent all season trying to shower more attention on the rest of his team.
On Thursday night, the Grizzlies beat the Timberwolves, 104-95, to take a two-games-to-one lead in their best-of-seven first-round series in the Western Conference. It was a game that gave Morant more ammunition as he campaigned for his teammates. They won even though Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Dillon Brooks were 11 of 38 from the field after starting.
“They deserve a lot more respect and recognition for what they do for us on the floor,” Morant said of his teammates as he sat next to Tyus Jones, his backup. “Like you said, us three struggled, but that’s why we got this guy alongside of me and the rest of our teammates to be there to pick us up. That’s why we’re really the deepest team in the league and we’re so good.”
This was not the first time the Grizzlies had proved their ability to succeed even when key players were struggling or absent.
Morant missed 25 games of the regular season, and the Grizzlies lost only five of them. When the team sat four starters against the league-leading Phoenix Suns on April 1, Memphis won anyway.
Bane didn’t play in that game against the Suns, but he has been a major reason for the Grizzlies’ success this season. He was drafted 30th overall in 2020 and has gone from being a role player in his rookie year to a starter this year — from averaging 9.2 points a game to 18.2 points a game this regular season.
“Last year I kind of felt like I was learning all year long, trying to learn, absorb as much information as I can so I could apply it in years to come,” Bane said in an interview Thursday morning. “Obviously, I’m still learning. I’m a young player, but I have a different role so I’m being extremely aggressive and having fun.”
Bane scored 17 points in the Grizzlies’ Game 1 loss to the Timberwolves and 16 in their Game 2 win. On Thursday he led all scorers with 26 points. Game 4 is Saturday.
The series pits against each other two young teams who are short on playoff experience but brimming with confidence. The Grizzlies had the second-best record in the league this year. The Timberwolves used a late push to force their way into the playoffs.
As soon as the Grizzlies lost Game 1, a memory of last season came in handy. They had defeated the Jazz in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series last year, then Utah won the next four games.
When Morant was asked pregame if he would like to steal a win from the Timberwolves on their home court, he said, “I want to steal two.”
When asked why he loved road games so much, Morant was equally succinct.
“Sending their fans home mad,” he said.
The Timberwolves fans booed Morant every time he touched the ball, and Minnesota’s defense prioritized stopping him. Relative to his usual performances, it did. Morant, who averaged 27.4 points a game in the regular season, scored just 16 on Thursday. But the win was enough for him. As time expired, Morant asked for the ball and threw it up into the rafters as the crowd, seeming more sad than mad, departed.
Jones, whom Morant introduced as “Point God” after the game, scored 11 points with 4 assists and 5 rebounds.
Brandon Clarke scored 20 points, and took the podium after Morant and Jones. As they crossed paths, Morant playfully chided him for hiding his jewelry under his shirt. Morant wanted him to shine.
The early playoff baptism for this young Grizzlies team is likely to pay off as their careers progress.
“This is the best player development you can get,” Memphis Coach Taylor Jenkins said. He added: “The mental focus that you’ve got to have. The attention to detail we pride ourselves on all season long. Game plan discipline, night in and night out. That’s all the work that our guys put in. When you get to this level and you’re playing high stakes game to game, ups and downs. Just staying even keeled throughout.”
Bane is quite aware of how unusual his first two seasons in the N.B.A. have been. Not everyone comes into a young team where they can make an immediate impact and also go to the playoffs.
“Some players go their whole career without ever making the playoffs,” Bane said Thursday morning. “And for me to be able to do it my first two years in the league, I don’t want anything else. I want to get to the playoffs every year.”
A smile brightened his face as he said it and thought about such a future.
In the shorter term, Bane is thinking bigger.
“We want to make some noise in this postseason,” Bane said. “We want to make a run. It’s obviously exciting times, and we’re confident about where we’re at and what we’ve done, but there’s still a lot to be done.”