The Timberwolves Have Mastered The Grizzlies

In the preview of the game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Memphis Grizzlies on Monday, the Star Tribune had this to say about the pivotal game for the Wolves.

“But all the Wolves can do is focus on what they have to do to beat a Memphis team they are 0-2 against this season. The second of those two losses came at Target Center on March 26. The Grizzlies have been a thorn for the Wolves for a while, winning the past four games between the two and 25 of the past 32.”

Given the Grizzlies are the proud winner of only 22 games this year, it is shocking that the Wolves had lost both games against the Grizzlies this year before finally winning the must win game Monday night. However, arguing that Memphis had won 25 of the past 32 is statistical malpractice that offers no prediction power (to be clear, I don’t think the writer thought that this trend is predictive). In statistical lingo, there is a structural break in the time series that these data points should not be analyzed together (this can be tested using the Chow Test).

For how bad the Grizzlies have been this season, we forget how good Grind City has been lately as evidenced by its seven consecutive playoff appearances prior to the stink that protruded from Memphis this year. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a team that has won just 35 percent of its games over the last eight years has lost 25 of 32 (which dates back to November 2009) to a perennial playoff team.

Similarly, the Wolves record in its past 32 games against the seven other 2016/2017 Western Conference playoff teams is a combined 59-165, good for a 26.3% win percentage, which is lower than the Wolves overall win percentage (35 percent) over that period. The table below displays the Wolves record against each playoff team.

The Warriors, Spurs, and Rockets have all been thorns in the Wolves side as well, but no one is going to note that because those teams are all still competitive. I don’t think I’m saying anything revolutionary by stating that it’s not surprising that the Wolves have lost more to good teams than to bad teams.

However, the Grizzlies have been the opposite of a thorn in the side of the Wolves. The Grizzlies are the only 2016/2017 Western Conference playoff team that the Wolves have a winning record against throughout the history of the Wolves franchise.

This is mainly because each of those other teams have had sustained success over the last 30 years while the Wolves have rolled out a decade of horrible teams (pre-Kevin Garnett era), a decade of pretty good teams (the KG era), and a decade of awful teams (post-KG, pre-Jimmy Butler era).

If the Wolves record against the Grizzlies over the last 32 games had any relevance to the result of Monday’s night game, then it must reason that the Nuggets would have a significant advantage over the Wolves in the win or go home game tonight. Yet, a site such as FiveThirtyEight shows that the likelihood of a Wolves win is 61 percent (probably closer to 50 percent if on a neutral court), even though Denver has won 9 of the last 15 against the Wolves and 21 of the last 32.

Go Wolves.

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