With Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, and Splash Brother-In-Law Damion Lee all out in the health and a safety protocols, the Golden State Warriors desperately needed offense against the Memphis Grizzlies. They got it from a defensive specialist. Gary Payton II, elevated to the starting lineup, put up 22 points, including four three-pointers. Oh, and some guy named Steph Curry dropped 46.
Memphis has emerged as a real rival to the Warriors recently, beating them in the play-in game last year, and handing the Dubs their first loss of the season this year, after coming back from 19 points down. So the atmosphere was very playoff-like, especially with young star Ja Morant back in just his second game after missing nearly a month. Payton drew the assignment on Morant, who started off hot, hitting his first three shots. But he was 3-12 the rest of the way, finishing with 21 points and six rebounds.
For the Warriors, Curry seems to have broken out of his recent mini-slump this week. Scoring 15 points in the 4th quarter against Sacramento opened the floodgates, and Curry now has 61 points in his last 48 minutes of play. He did it by making 8/14 from three-point range, but also by getting to the line, a rarity for Steph, where he hit all 12 of his freebies. Some of that was going to the hoop, but it mostly came from the aggressive, borderline-dirty defense of Dillon Brooks, the NBA’s personal foul leader two years running. Brooks looked exhausted from hooking Steph, running through screens, and stepping into his landing area on threes all night, to the point that he only had the energy to put up five shots after halftime, and finished with 13 points.
Draymond Green had nine assists and eight points, with just enough shooting to keep the Grizzlies defense honest. Otto Porter Jr., another new addition to the starting lineup, had nine rebounds and eight points of his own. Kevon Looney got in foul trouble early, so Nemanja Bjelica filled in at the pivot and nailed three three-pointers in 22 huge minutes. In fact, the Warriors got contributions from the whole rotation - six assists from Juan Toscano-Anderson, six points from Jonathan Kuminga, and solid defense from Moses Moody, who was +11 in his 11 minutes of play. The notable exception was an overmatched Chris Chiozza, who was scoreless in 17 minutes and logged a -13 for the game.
Bjelica also logged the prestigious State Farm Assist of the Night for a crazy dime that got Curry a three-point play. I don’t think he was allowed to throw those passes in Minnesota or Sacramento.
For Memphis, it was a balanced scoring effort that fell just short. The Grizzlies got a big scoring effort from their own defensive specialist, De’Anthony Melton, who had 20 points and 9 rebounds, along with two steals and a block. Melton was also the only Grizzly who could make shots in the 4th quarter, when despite five steals, Memphis only managed 21 points, and shot 38%. Jaren Jackson Jr. had 20 points and caused the majority of Looney’s foul trouble, Sharpshooter Desmond Bane had 12 points, and Kyle “Slo Mo” Anderson had his typical strong game against the Warriors. He only had eight points and five boards, but he was +8 in his 19 minutes.
It was a battle throughout, with the Warriors only pulling away in the final minutes. A long Curry three put them up 102-96 with 3:27.
Then the Dubs proceeded to turn the ball over on three straight possessions. Two of those were steals by Melton, whose layup tied things up at 102 with two minutes to go. After a timeout, JTA posted up Melton and hit a reverse layup, then he and Draymond forced a Jackson miss at the other end. Following Brooks’ fifth foul, when Curry’s fancy dribbling made him fall on his face, the Warriors had a beautiful passing sequence - Curry-to-Green-to-Anderson-to-Payton - ending with Payton burying a corner three to set a new career high with four triples.
After Ja Morant missed, Otto Porter got a tough rebound - and got an even tougher rebound when Curry missed a wild three at the other end. Two passes later, Steph was driving for a layup, a seven-point lead, and his 44th point of the night, and that was all she wrote for Memphis.
Memphis started hot, mainly thanks to the Morant-Melton duo, who shot 7-8 as the Grizzlies’ lead got up to ten points. But Bjelica kept it close with two threes to end the quarter, cutting the deficit to four, 31-27. The highlight of the quarter may have been Kevon Looney’s passing, hitting Payton twice for easy layups.
Again, the fear of Steph coming off screens gets Adams playing high. Brooks hooks him before Steph springs free, and Adams stunts too early. Draymond throws it over the top to Looney who again dumps it off to Gary Payton II who lays it in pic.twitter.com/98wuUp7Wy2— Charlie Cummings (@klaytheist11) December 24, 2021
The Warriors got quality minutes from their rookies, playing together at the start of the second quarter. In a testament to the rookies’ defense (and their struggles rebounding), Memphis missed four shots on one trip down before Moses Moody corralled the rebound. Jonathan Kuminga hit two three-pointers in the period, and is now shooting 29% from distance, up from 12% just one week ago.
It was 53-52 at the half, but it was the second half when Curry started to take over. He had 15 points, two assists, and a steal. The team’s usual third quarter run got the lead up to eight, but they were uncharacteristically struggling, thanks to Memphis playing stifling defense. Golden State was scoreless for three minutes until Curry was fouled and hit all three free throws.
The win brings the Warriors’ record to 26-6, in advance of their Christmas showdown with the 26-5 Phoenix Suns. Wiggins and Poole will both be out, as well as Lee, while the Suns have no players in the health and safety protocols as of now. They may need a Christmas miracle, but if GP2 can hit four threes in a game, anything’s possible!