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How the Warriors targeted, isolated, and exploited Ja Morant

Morant was a pressure point the Warriors pounded relentlessly.

Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

On the surface, the Golden State Warriors and the Memphis Grizzlies are in situations that couldn’t be any more of polar opposites.

The Warriors are 11th in the Western Conference and are scrambling to recover from an early season nightmare of a start, considering that they just came off of their fourth NBA Championship in eight years under the Steve Kerr regime. Their offense (112.9 ORTG, 15th) is middling, their defense (113.8 DRTG, 23rd) is struggling, and they are without their franchise superstar and premier two-way wing.

On the other hand, things couldn’t be any better for the Grizzlies: 11th on offense, the fourth-stingiest defensive team, and possessing the fifth-best point differential in the league. This current rise toward the cream of the Western crop has coincided with the rise of a dynamic superstar guard, the emergence of a sweet-shooting wing, and a two-way unicorn who has become an elite defensive anchor.

The Grizzlies possess the ingredients for a squad that can lock opponents down in all sorts of way: point-of-attack defense, screen navigation, and a backline defensive force that is making waves and building enough of a case to shoot up the Defensive Player of the Year rankings. The Grizzlies are 17th in opponent rim rate but allow a field goal percentage of 61.9% — second-best in the league, per Cleaning the Glass.

Opponents are shooting just 42.5% at the rim against Jaren Jackson Jr. Among 185 players who’ve played at least 15 games and who average at least 23 minutes, that mark is the best in the league. Simply put, almost no one can challenge the Grizzlies at the rim with Jackson Jr. roaming the paint.

It showed as much during the Warriors’ Christmas Day game against the Grizzlies. Only 13% of the Warriors’ shot attempts (1st percentile) came at the rim. On nine attempts, they managed only four made shots up close, giving credence to the Grizzlies’ elite rim protection and how effective they are at discouraging teams from testing their mettle in the paint.

The Warriors had to find another way to challenge the Grizzlies defense instead of directly attacking them head on. Despite finding little opportunity for line-drive rim attacks, the Warriors did manage to put pressure by touching the paint and creating perimeter advantages.

They also circled a singular pressure point, pounded it relentlessly, and copped themselves a huge victory. That pressure point’s name?

Ja Morant.

Morant’s final stat line speaks to how brilliant he is an offensive player: 36 points on 29 shots (13-of-19 on twos, 2-of-10 on threes). It may not have been the most efficient scoring performance of his career (56.1 TS%), but the Grizzlies needed every bit of his scoring to sustain an offense that otherwise scuffled (101.0 ORTG).

However, it wasn’t Morant’s offense that the Warriors circled and targeted — it was his defense, or lack thereof, that allowed them to create advantages and generate efficient looks.

The Warriors targeted Morant in a multitude of ways: both on and off the ball, in the half court and in transition. They even managed to snag Morant on a screen to create an easy layup, courtesy of a staple sideline out-of-bounds (SLOB) set: “WTF.”

“WTF” is a well-known acronym — you probably don’t need me to expound further — that is termed as such because it dates back to the 1969 New York Knicks coached by Red Holzman, who also happened to be Phil Jackson’s head coach during his playing years. By virtue of being a Jackson disciple, Kerr adopted “WTF” as a favored SLOB set.

(If you want to read more about the origins of this SLOB, read this exceptional piece by Jackie MacMullan.)

While other teams explicitly yell out “What the f***” to call out the play, Kerr prefers to keep it PG through a simple gesture:

A “shrug” by Donte DiVincenzo signals “WTF”, which constitutes two main actions both on the weak side (a flare screen) and strong side (a backscreen for the inbounder followed by a downscreen for the backscreener).

Against the Grizzlies, they used “WTF” to target Morant and the Grizzlies’ lack of communication in terms of off-ball screen coverage — i.e., whether to switch screens or stay home on your assigned man.

Adding to Morant’s woes as a below-average defender is the fact that the Warriors used Klay Thompson as the backscreener, which added another confounding factor. As Thompson’s defender, Ziaire Williams was reluctant to switch off of a dangerous shooter, a fact the Warriors used to their advantage.

Facing a team that employs the most cuts in per-game terms (11.5) as well as a proportion of total offensive possessions (10.1%), one would think the Grizzlies would’ve done their homework in terms of establishing baseline coverages for this kind of off-ball backscreen action that generates a cut.

But it seems the Grizzlies — and Morant, in particular — were woefully underprepared and caught off guard despite the absence of the Warriors’ offensive centerpiece. Morant just doesn’t have the screen-navigation chops to execute proper lock-and-trail principles around downscreens and all sorts of off-ball actions.

The Warriors like having a big — often Draymond Green or Kevon Looney — handle things up top to initiate a variety of actions (“5-Out Delay”). With Green handling at the top of the key, Jonathan Kuminga “45-cuts” toward the paint, acting as a sort of “brush” screen that acts as an obstacle for Morant, who falls behind on the chase for Ty Jerome. Coupled with a solid screen, mediocre screen-navigation ability, and Steven Adams dropping back, Jerome is left wide open around the DHO for the three.

On-ball screening action proved to be equally difficult for Morant to navigate. The Warriors used guard-guard screening action — that is, a guard screening for another ball-handling guard — to force Morant into the action.

If you’re the Grizzlies, you have several coverage options against guard-guard screening:

  1. Switch the screens, which is theoretically sound since you’re exchanging like-sized defenders that should provide little-to-no defensive fall-off.
  2. Blitz the ball-handler and force him to have to give up possession of the ball.
  3. Hedge and recover to prevent an isolation mismatch — in this case, prevent Morant from being isolated on an island.

Watch what Morant does when Donte DiVincenzo sets a screen and “ghosts” it (a fake screen followed by flaring toward the weak-side slot):

Morant looks caught in between coverages on what looks like a cross between a blitz and a hedge. The Grizzlies obviously don’t want Morant to defend in isolation, while also wanting Jordan Poole (who finished the night with 32 points on 56.1 TS%) to give up possession of the ball.

DiVincenzo “ghosting” the screen is the perfect counter to the Grizzlies’ confused on-ball coverage. What doesn’t help matters is Morant running into his own teammate — a de-facto screen — on his attempt to recover toward DiVincenzo, who drills the open three.

Even something as basic and fundamental as matching up properly in transition was something Morant was unable to do — even off of a made bucket:

To add insult to injury, Morant — even while having a couple of wild and adventurous finishes on his forays in the paint — was stonewalled on a drive by Green, who displayed excellent fundamentals in help defense.

Morant also didn’t have as much success as expected against drawn-out late switches. The Warriors were prepared to send just the right amount of help to stifle Morant, force him to hesitate, and force bad decisions.

Morant is an incredible offensive talent and will most probably lead the Grizzlies to a deep playoff run this season or in subsequent years. An MVP plum in the future isn’t out of the question. But he can get exploited: a Grizzlies team whose offense can run on fumes is suddenly left to rely on Morant for sustainable offense, while running the risk of having him be targeted endlessly by opponents seeking to create advantages.

The Curry-less Warriors were able to isolate Morant and put pressure on him on their way to a morale-boosting win — which bodes well for a potential matchup where Curry will most likely be there to dole out elite levels of punishment.

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