Sports

I Hope the NBA Playoffs’ Most Thrilling Series Never Ends

Both teams are hungry, exciting, and seem to play out of pure joy.

Ja Morant goes for a layup as Karl-Anthony Towns defends him with a hand up, an NBA key and an Xes and Os play illustrated behind them.
We need more of this. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images.

The first round of the NBA Playoffs is mostly in the bag, and, despite no shortage of deliriously fun moments, thus far it’s mostly been chalk. Going in to the bracket many observers predicted the Boston Celtics–Brooklyn Nets series as a sure-fire seven-gamer; after a dramatic Game 1, the Celtics handily swept Brooklyn out of the playoffs. The plucky eighth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans put a little scare into a shorthanded Phoenix Suns squad until Thursday night, when Phoenix sent them packing behind a record-setting, 14-for-14 shooting performance from Chris Paul. Philadelphia went up 3–0 on the Toronto Raptors before losing their next two, prompting speculation that they might become the first NBA team in history to choke away a 3–0 lead … until Thursday night, when the Sixers traveled to Toronto and obliterated the Raptors by 35.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

At the time of this writing, seven of the eight first-round series have been decided, with the higher seed winning every one and nary a Game 7 to be found. Luckily, the one series that’s left might be the most entertaining of all, as this evening the Minnesota Timberwolves will take to their home floor and try to push the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies to that elusive final game. The Wolves and Grizzlies are two young and very inexperienced teams, and at times the product on the floor has reflected this. Minnesota has led the series for nearly three-quarters of the total minutes played, and yet find themselves in a 3–2 hole. None of the first three games of the series were particularly close; the most recent two have been nail-biters that have been thrilling and haphazard in equal measure.

Advertisement
Advertisement

A representative sequence would be the end of Game 5, which Ja Morant won for Memphis on a last-second layup partly enabled by blown defensive coverage by Wolves guard Anthony Edwards, who unsuccessfully gambled for a steal. If Edwards had made the play he was trying to make, it would have been absolutely legendary: He’d just tied the game with a 3-pointer, and there was still plenty of time for him to go for a breakaway, game-winning dunk. Unfortunately he did not make the play, an outcome he probably should have considered more.

Advertisement

Whichever of these teams advances looks likely to get buzz-sawed by the Golden State Warriors in the second round, which is just one reason we should want this series to go as long as possible. Both of these teams are hungry, exciting, and often seem to play out of pure enjoyment. So much of any given playoffs is pre-emptively drenched with pathos, teams scrambling for the top of the pile while trying to beat back postseason ghosts of the past. Will Chris Paul dodge postseason injury hexes and win this era’s most elusive championship? Can Steph Curry silence the last remaining doubters and finally win a Finals MVP? Can Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown break the Celtics out of the East at long last? And then there’s the Philadelphia 76ers, an entire team wrought from accretions of micro-generational hardwood trauma.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Minnesota and Memphis come with none of this baggage. The Timberwolves have been so bad for so long that when the Wolves evened the series at 2–2, Minnesota head coach Chris Finch moved into sole possession of second place on the team’s postseason victories list. (This is Finch’s first playoffs.) The Grizzlies enjoyed sustained success with the “Grit and Grind” teams of the 2010s but only made the Conference Finals once, and were never really considered a leading title threat during an era full of loaded Western Conference squads.

Advertisement
Advertisement

In sports it’s usually a backhanded swipe to describe a team as “happy to be here,” but that’s how both of these teams have approached these playoffs, and watching it feels distinctly refreshing. There have been ups and downs, for sure: Minnesota’s star big man Karl-Anthony Towns has had a roller-coaster of a series (8 points and 5 fouls in Game 3; 33 points and 14 rebounds in Game 4), and Memphis’ sensational Morant—a few earth-shattering slams aside—thus far hasn’t looked as superhuman in the postseason, shooting only 40 percent from the field and a frigid 26.7 percent from 3. But none of it matters much for the long run: Memphis is firmly ahead of schedule by any measure, and Morant is only 22; if he can sidestep some nagging injury concerns he will be a marquee face of the league for years to come. And even if the Wolves lose tonight, Minnesota pushed a two-seed to six games and their 20-year-old franchise-cornerstone Edwards scored 36 points in his playoff debut and has averaged 24 points per game for the series, performances that foretell a perennial postseason monster going forward.

Advertisement
Advertisement

(A quick aside on Edwards: back when he entered the league in 2020, he was considered by draft analysts to be one of the riskier top picks in recent history. There were questions about his effort, his energy, whether he truly “loved basketball,” the last of which was encapsulated by a pre-draft ESPN profile of Edwards that seemed alarmed by his unwillingness to parrot clichés. Fast-forward less than two years, and all of this feels like the absolute worst “intel” imaginable, as Edwards has emerged as one of the most electrifying young talents to enter the league in years and a player with unfathomable levels of on- and off-court charisma. The idea that Edwards doesn’t love basketball should be laughable to anyone who’s watched him play it for more than 5 seconds.)

If Minnesota can fight the good fight tonight, then Game 7 will be on Sunday afternoon in Memphis, and what happens next is anyone’s guess. This series should make anyone excited about both of these teams’ long-term futures, and we can only hope their short-term futures last at least a few more days.

Advertisement