MEMPHIS, Tennessee – It took 20 seconds for the Golden State Warriors to announce their Ja Morant strategy to the entire viewing world. On first possession of Game 1, the Grizzlies turned a high screen to allow Draymond Green to switch to Morant, but Green did not come within six feet of Morant as Morant circled the perimeter.
The Memphis Grizzlies let possession materialize. Dillon Brooks threw it to Jaren Jackson Jr. who took on the smaller Andrew Wiggins. But Jackson didn’t have much room to operate. Green had collapsed in his area to take away the lefty drive, ignoring Morant. So Jackson kicked it to the wide open Morant and Green didn’t even pretend to get closer, stopped six feet short and let Morant take the 3.
You probably noticed: Morant hit it. When the next possession came down, the Warriors executed a similar plan. Gary Payton II went down on a high screen, Green didn’t cover hard and Morant again buried an open left wing 3. The first six runs of the series were on Morant 3s.
But that didn’t stop the Warriors from their original plan. This was Groen later in that first quarter. Morant tries to speed up the transition. Three warriors retreat into the paint and form a wall in front of the rim. Morant reluctantly withdraws. Green refuses to go near the three-point line. Morant fires another wide open shot. He misses this one.
This is reminiscent of the defensive strategy the Warriors used in the 2016 playoffs against Russell Westbrook. Mid-prime Westbrook was a runaway freight train in transition, an explosive finisher on the edge and still in touch in the restricted area. If you pressed him, he would blow past. But going backwards gave you more room to cut off his drive and lure him to a lower percentage jumper.
Here are two examples from that 2016 West final. Andre Iguodala sinks from Westbrook in the first clip and Klay Thompson goes under a screen in the second, even knowing Draymond Green is in drop cover. Westbrook misses a pair of open threes.
Green’s late match on the second Westbrook clip is remarkable. There was some talk after Warriors practice on Monday in Memphis that they let Morant run in too many batting practice 3s.
“You want to have a late game, I guess,” Green said. “But if you fly there to get a late game, it’s very elusive and will fly past you.”
Morant went 4-of-11 in total. Those 11 attempts were a one-off career high. He took only 20 total in six Minnesota first round games, never more than five in a single game. The Warriors are happy for him to hit double digits. They prefer that there is at least a hand somewhere in Morant’s shooting environment if it is obvious that he is taking the jumper and can’t beat you with the drive.
Here are three quick screenshot examples of three of Morant’s misses. Stephen Curry, Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. all sank enough to lure Morant into the jumper, but spring forward for a late game to make the shot a bit more challenging.
Morant is able to burn this strategy. He even did it once with the Warriors in a do-or-die situation.
Do you remember the last day of last regular season? The Warriors and Grizzlies faced the eighth seed on the line. The Warriors fell off Morant and he went 1-of-6 out of 3, giving the Warriors home in a Play-In game late in the week. They followed the same strategy. With a playoff spot on the line, Morant made a career high five 3s on 10 tries and the Grizzlies advanced into overtime.
“He led the competition in paint points at six feet for a reason, however tall he is,” said Green. When was the last time a guard led the competition in paintpoints? Allen Iverson? So you have to do everything you can to not let him get there.”
That means living with the results of Morant’s jumper, even if he is able to spend an efficient evening there. So it was with Westbrook. He had some hot nights from deep in that West final. In a Game 4 Thunder win, Westbrook went 4-of-8 of 3. But he also went 0-of-5 in that Game 6 gut-punch OKC loss and was 30.1 percent overall in the series.
Morant proved early on to be a slightly better 3-point shooter. Westbrook is at 30.5 percent for his career, Morant is at 32.7 percent over three seasons. But when it comes to assessing threat levels, they are treated the same.
“There’s a reason he’s an MVP player,” Green said of Morant. “You can’t take everything away. You know he can beat you to the brink. He’s been doing that ever since he got into the NBA. He is the reason this (Memphis) franchise has moved on from Mike Conley, who is a legend here. They immediately moved on because they knew what they had. You know he can beat you to get to the brink. So you have to try something different.”
Also similar to Westbrook, the Warriors plan to make Morant work on the defensive end and exploit some of his shortcomings. Morant, like Westbrook, tends to lose focus on the ball and either fail to identify a cutter or take it out.
When Morant is on Wiggins, they want him to attack the attacking glass. When Morant is on Payton, they want him to chop and cut and constantly search for the open seam when Morant turns his back.
These two clips are from Game 1. In the first, Wiggins steps just past Morant for an easy rebound and putback. In the second – with less than two minutes to go and Memphis two ahead – Payton slides behind Morant for an tying layup.
Here’s Curry losing to Westbrook on a cut in that 2016 series.
When asked about those two defensive errors in Game 1 on Monday, Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins defended his star. He said it was “totally wrong” to pin Payton’s backlash to Morant, saying that was not his order, then brought up the 26 second chance points for the Warriors, believing it was a team-wide problem and not only Morant.
Fair. But this remains a targeted part of the Warriors’ attack strategy. Morant had a prolific Game 1. He finished with 34 points and 10 assists. But the Warriors were okay with the 31 shot attempts (and 11 attempts at 3s) it took him to reach those numbers and will continue to drag him into the mix at the other end, testing him physically and as a team defender. It’s what they once did with Westbrook and survived well enough to consider it a success.
(Top photo: Noah Graham / NBAE via Getty Images)