The fun of the playoffs is that every round can be totally different from one another.
The Golden State Warriors had to contend with the Denver Nuggets’ mixture of high/low-post offense, initiated by plenty of wedge cuts, different half-court sets out of HORNS, or through their big man handling up top in “Delay” sets. Such an approach was necessary for the Nuggets — after all, they had the services of the best offensive big man in the league in Nikola Jokić.
Throw all of that away, however, when approaching this intriguing Western Conference Semifinal matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies.
In lieu of a dominant big lording over the post game, the Grizzlies present a much more perimeter-oriented danger, in the form of the newly minted Most Improved Player, Ja Morant.
(I’m not here to debate the award. Morant is a deserving winner, although I wouldn’t have chosen him. Let’s leave it at that.)
Defending Morant is Exhibit A of the massive difference in approach the Warriors will have to adopt. Morant is, by far, the best rim scorer who isn’t a big man or a wing. He averaged the 3rd most drives per game during the regular season (20.9) and averaged the most points off of them (14.8).
The most jaw-dropping stat, however, is Morant’s points-in-the-paint per game. At 16.6 during the regular season, Morant led ALL players — as a 6’3” guard — in paint points, over the likes of Jokić, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, LeBron James, and Deandre Ayton. You’d have to go all the way to 12th (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 12.0 PITP per game) to find the next highest guard on the list.
His athleticism, off-the-dribble explosion, and downhill juice are all arguably second-to-none among guards. Not a moment can be spent in contentedness; relax for even just a tiny moment, and Morant will feast at the point of attack. His pogo-stick leaps and wide array of finishing moves allow him to get past most rim protectors and help-side defenders.
His 66% success rate at the rim is 86th percentile among all guards, while his 42% mark from floater range is still in the upper half among his position (62nd percentile).
Morant is efficient in almost every play-type that primary ball-handlers are involved in: as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll (0.921 PPP, 71st percentile); in transition (1.213 PPP, 68th percentile), and as an isolation scorer (0.994 PPP, 73rd percentile).
The only frequent play-type of his that could be considered average is his spot-up shooting (0.935 PPP, 37th percentile). Morant improved his three-point shooting by a considerable amount — from 30.3% on 3.8 attempts last season, to 34.4% on 4.5 attempts this season. While that is considered an uptick, it’s still technically below league average.
The Grizzlies will most certainly center their schemes around Morant when he’s on the floor. They’ve used plenty of HORNS sets (most commonly double-high ball-screens) to get Morant downhill, where he can opt to score or pass to a perimeter spacer or roamer in the dunker spot, depending on how the defense rotates.
Morant off the ball is a rare sight, but look for the Grizzlies to run him off staggered screens from the corner (“Motion Strong”) to set up a clear side for him to isolate after setting “ghost” screens. Occasionally, he sets “inverted” ball-screens to force switches through which he can work solo, preferably against someone who has trouble defending in space.
This is going to be one tricky matchup — arguably much trickier than against Jokić and the Nuggets — because of Morant’s unparalleled ability to put pressure on the rim as a perimeter player.
And, perhaps the most important reason: because the Grizzlies are a much deeper team — with pieces that complement Morant’s skillset — than the Nuggets.
Projected starting lineups
|Stephen Curry||Ja Morant|
|Jordan Poole||Desmond Bane|
|Klay Thompson||Dillon Brooks|
|Andrew Wiggins||Jaren Jackson Jr.|
|Draymond Green||Xavier Tillman|
Relevant regular season team stats
|Offensive Rating||112.1 (16th)||114.3 (4th)|
|Half-Court Offensive Rating||97.3 (12th)||93.4 (22nd)|
|Defensive Rating||106.6 (2nd)||108.9 (6th)|
|Half-Court Defensive Rating||91.2 (3rd)||93.3 (9th)|
|Effective Field-Goal Percentage||55.2% (3rd)||52.2% (23rd)|
|Pace||98.74 (15th)||100.52 (4th)|
|Assist Percentage||66.9% (1st)||59.7% (19th)|
|Turnover Percentage||15.0% (29th)||13.0% (8th)|
|Free-Throw Attempts Per 100 Possessions||20.6 (25th)||23.0 (7th)|
|Free-Throw Percentage||76.9% (17th)||73.4% (28th)|
|Three-Point-Attempt Rate||45.6% (2nd)||34.6% (28th)|
|Three-Point Percentage||36.4% (8th)||35.3% (17th)|
|Offensive Rebound Percentage||26.9% (16th)||33.8% (1st)|
Regular season matchups aren’t typically an accurate barometer of how a playoff series will go. The Warriors faced the Grizzlies four times in the regular season — they won only one.
A revolving door of personnel due to injuries didn’t exactly give the Warriors the luxury of continuity in terms of lineups and rotations, so those matchups in the regular season must be taken with an extremely small grain of salt. But nevertheless, there are a couple of takeaways in terms of how to stifle Morant.
Asking either Stephen Curry or Jordan Poole to be the primary Morant defender is asking a lot. Curry has improved tremendously as an on-ball defender, but Morant is an exhausting assignment, and Curry will need all the energy he can muster for the Warriors’ offensive attack.
Poole is far from a premier perimeter stopper, nor can he even be considered passable enough to command a significant chunk of the Morant assignment. The Grizzlies will make sure to center their plan of attack around making Poole defend in space (assuming he has to pick up Morant on a switch), forcing him to navigate screens, and testing his commitment to lateral movement.
According to their four matchups this season, the Warriors’ best options happen to be two of their best perimeter stoppers: Andrew Wiggins and Gary Payton II.
Wiggins’ combination of length, athleticism, and persistence is tailor-made for Morant. Wiggins has proven to be an exceptional lateral mover, with an ability to keep his assignment in front, while also being able to stay on the hip and put overbearing pressure — something that will be needed against Morant’s penchant for floaters.
As I’ve previously stated, NBA.com’s matchup tracking data is an imperfect metric, so take these numbers with just a small amount of salt. In 9 minutes and 31 seconds of Wiggins being Morant’s primary defender during the regular season, Morant put up the following numbers:
- 11 points
- 5 assists
- 1 turnover
- 5-of-17 shooting (29.4%)
- 0-of-4 on threes
Save for height and length, Payton brings the same attributes as Wiggins does when it comes to defending Morant: point-of-attack competency, screen navigation chops, lateral movement, and persistence.
But Payton’s advantage is that he has the matching speed and agility to bother Morant for the full length of the floor. His high pick-up points can often be risky endeavors, but Payton is one of few defenders in the league who can get away with it.
In 16 minutes and 4 seconds of Payton as his primary defender, Morant’s numbers:
- 7 points
- 4 assists
- 5 turnovers
- 2-of-12 shooting (16.7%)
- 0-of-3 on threes
Notice that in most of the clips above, Wiggins or Payton on Morant were mostly 2-man actions out of the pick-and-roll. Their pick-and-roll-defense partner—whether it be Draymond Green or Kevon Looney — will be crucial in stifling Morant’s paint excursions.
Despite Morant’s mediocre outside shooting, a deep drop coverage isn’t recommended, due to his ability to thrive in floater range. Semi-aggressive to aggressive coverages — “centerfield” (somewhere in-between screen level step-ups and a deep drop), meeting Morant at the level of the screen, and the occasional timely trap — will most likely be the recommended diet of pick-and-roll coverages.
The Warriors’ base scheme of “ICE” coverage will also be paramount to prevent middle penetration from Morant, although he has shown the ability to will his way to the middle despite the denial of the screen.
The enormous amount of pressure Morant generates through his paint attacks can be overwhelming. Even if he finds himself facing a defensive wall, the responsibility placed upon the backline defense — most commonly the low man on the weak side and those who are “splitting the difference” between the corner and the wing — can be too much.
Morant averages 7.1 assists for his career. His interior passing is nothing to scoff at:
While the Grizzlies aren’t the most proficient three-point-shooting team as a collective, they do have one potent outside threat in the form of Desmond Bane — a career 43.5% shooter from beyond the arc. Among 63 players who have recorded at least 200 spot-up possessions this season, Bane’s 1.219 PPP is 10th in efficiency, and is in the 93rd percentile.
Bane arguably benefits the most from Morant’s attention-grabbing nature in the paint. Secondary actions on the weak side such as corner staggers, trailing in transition and letting loose when all eyes are on Morant, and skip passes to the corner when Morant and a roll-man partner draw the low-man away — whatever form it may take, Bane isn’t afraid to pull the trigger.
I want to specifically highlight the possibility that the Grizzlies may stash Bane on the weak-side corner against the Warriors, who have developed quite a notorious reputation for giving up lots of corner looks — a natural consequence of their scramble defense.
These specific possessions against the Minnesota Timberwolves is something the Warriors should be wary of:
Last — but most certainly not the least — is the matter of turnovers.
Only the Houston Rockets turned the ball over more than the Warriors did in the regular season, while the Grizzlies forced the 3rd most turnovers. I don’t need to expound why that could be a recipe for disaster.
Morant feeds off of transition; if the Warriors turn the ball over wantonly, he will make sure to punish them for their mistakes:
One thing to remember about Morant is that whatever damage he inflicts on offense will most certainly be returned back to him on the defensive end of the floor.
The Grizzlies have outscored opponents by around 4 points per 100 possessions during Morant’s 1,889 regular-season minutes, buoyed mostly by an offensive rating (115.3) that would be the equivalent to the 3rd best in the league.
Without Morant on the floor, their offensive rating (111.7) dips to the bottom half of the rankings, equivalent to 19th in the league — but they outscore opponents by a larger amount: 6.4 points per 100 possessions.
The key difference lies on defense. With Morant, the Grizzlies sport a defensive rating of 111.2, equivalent to 15th in the league. Without him, their defensive rating improves to 105.3 — stingier than the Boston Celtics’ league-leading 106.2.
Morant — at least on the defensive end — is carried by his teammates. Dillon Brooks is the specialist, often tasked to defend the opponents’ best perimeter scorer (e.g., Curry) using his tenacity, screen-navigation chops, and ruggedness that treads the thin line between acceptable physicality and outright fouling.
Jaren Jackson Jr. is a highly capable help-side defender who led the league in blocks (2.3) during the regular season, in addition to being a switchable big AND a stretch big — a highly valued commodity in the modern NBA.
The Grizzlies are inundated with decent to above-average perimeter defenders who are disciplined as a collective unit and well-drilled in terms of basic schemes and rotations, including help at the “nail” (the middle spot of the free-throw line) in the form of stunts and digs. The wide range of their personnel allows them a considerable amount of scheme versatility.
Morant remains the singular chink in the armor that sticks out like a sore thumb. His effort can be extremely wanting — both as an off-ball operator, especially when closing out on shooters:
And as a screen navigator, giving up prematurely and dying on screens, which virtually hands over control of the pick-and-roll dance to the ball handler:
The Warriors are known for their patented down-screen action for their shooters, with Green as the ball-handler and decision-maker up top in a “Delay” configuration. When Morant is forced into such an action, he isn’t capable of communicating switches, nor is he cognizant of when to switch, resulting in the down-screener slipping through for an open cut to the rim.
The Grizzlies try to hide Morant on a non-threat whenever they can — but with a lineup that has Curry, Poole, and Klay Thompson in it, there’s virtually nowhere to hide.
When Morant is the low man, he is ineffective as a help-side defender:
Look for the Warriors to hunt Morant on switches, especially with Wiggins on cross-screen “Flex” action, ball-screens, or through cross-matching in transition. Morant is an easy target for Wiggins, both because of the size discrepancy and Morant’s lack of effort.
Another area of Morant’s defense the Warriors can exploit is in transition and semi-transition. His tendency to jog back on defense allows leak-outs to happen:
He can also be slow to match up in transition, occasionally getting confused as to who his man is supposed to be. He’s prone to getting caught up in screens, which spells certain doom against an offense that places a premium on freeing their knockdown shooters up with a never-ending barrage of picks.
While the Warriors aren’t really the type of team to hunt mismatches on purpose — instead opting to get into the natural flow of their offense and let things fall into place — they would benefit from seeking Morant and forcing him to play defense. Not only is it an exploitable matchup that could compromise an otherwise solid defensive unit — it could also affect Morant’s offensive output.
Who will round out the rotation?
Gary Payton II is the definite “shoo-in” for this series, for obvious reasons. He will garner a significant number of minutes guarding Morant in a specialist role. Steve Kerr may have to find more time for Payton should he be a successful foil for Morant. He may also need to continue to be an offensive threat on the margins — setting screens, roaming in the dunker spot, cutting baseline, drilling open threes, etc. — to justify a potential minutes increase.
Andre Iguodala is set to be re-evaluated by Wednesday, which automatically rules him out for the first two games of the series. This gives Jonathan Kuminga an opportunity for more burn. His energy and athleticism may be better suited for this series; it won’t be a surprise if Kerr gives him a slight uptick in playing time.
Otto Porter Jr. did not have the best performances of his career against the Nuggets. He’ll need to step up and do better against a team that will provide a tougher test. More on him below.
Kevon Looney may start, or he may not. I’m inclined to lean toward Kerr starting his best 5 right off the bat, but a conventional Looney start isn’t off the table. Whatever the case, he will most certainly be tasked with walling off the paint against Morant on defense and set plenty of screens and run handoffs to free up Curry, Poole, and Thompson.
My prediction of who will round out the rotation is as follows.
- Gary Payton II
- Andre Iguodala (barring further setback)
- Otto Porter Jr.
- Kevon Looney
- Jonathan Kuminga
In my opinion, this is NOT a series where Nemanja Bjelica should see meaningful minutes. The Grizzlies feast on defenders who aren’t effective in space, whether on screen-and-roll actions or on switches. Bjelica fares much better as a stationary post defender, which is why he saw minutes against the Nuggets (and even then, he was eventually phased out in favor of Kuminga and, eventually, a shorter rotation).
X-factor: Otto Porter Jr.
In 21.9 minutes per game, Porter put up the following numbers against the Nuggets:
- 3.4 points
- 3.2 rebounds
- 2.2 assists
- 32/15/50 shooting splits
Porter has been a far cry from his days as the Warriors’ best role-player acquisition. His ability to space the floor and hit outside shots has been conspicuously absent. His effort and motor are still present, especially on the boards. But he’ll need to do more than be just energetic in order to help the Warriors overcome the Grizzlies.
A return to the shooting mean is going to happen — eventually. It must happen, if he’s to help the Warriors’ premier perimeter operators and provide them relief in the form of scoring.
Another thing that he should be a big help on: rebounding. The Grizzlies are the best offensive rebounding team in the league in terms of raw offensive boards per game (14.1) and offensive rebounding percentage (33.8%).
The Grizzlies are masters of the possession battle, mostly because they manage to retain possessions and rebound their own misses:
A collective effort on the boards through gang rebounding will be key, especially when considering the Warriors’ size disadvantage. Porter has often stood out with his effort in crashing the boards; that effort will be needed against the Grizzlies’ rebounding might.
In 2015, the Warriors were a rising contender looking to grab the Western Conference throne from the San Antonio Spurs. They were almost stopped in their tracks by a battle-tested veteran Grizzlies “Grit & Grind” squad. They went down 2-1, before winning 3 straight to overcome what was then their biggest challenge.
Seven years later, the Warriors are now the battle-tested veteran team that went to 5 consecutive NBA Finals and won 3 championships . The Grizzlies, years removed from Grit & Grind, are creating a brand-new identity of youthful audacity, led by a brash superstar whose stock has rapidly risen.
The question is this: can these young Grizzlies overcome the magnitude of experience that the Warriors possess and use it as a springboard for a championship run?
The Grizzlies are a much tougher matchup than the Nuggets, and are certainly capable of pushing the Warriors to the limit. But I’m inclined to think that experience and poise will spell the difference in this series.
The Grizzlies did not come out of the matchup against the Wolves squeaky clean. They had their bouts of questionable decision making, ineffective half-court offense, and mind-boggling shot selection and turnovers. It just so happened that they faced a team that was even worse than them in terms of everything they themselves did wrong.
The Warriors are far from greenhorns. They will punish mistakes. They will pounce on indecision. They will remain calm in the face of adversity.
Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson haven’t even played against these Grizzlies as a trio; they haven’t seen the full core 3 experience. They may overcome it. They may not. But it’s going to be one humongous hurdle.
A hurdle that, in my view, will stop them in their tracks.
Warriors in 6
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