MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It took 20 seconds for the Golden State Warriors to declare their Ja Morant strategy to the entire viewing world. On the first possession of Game 1, the Grizzlies dialed up a high screen to get Draymond Green switched onto Morant, but Green didn’t get within eight feet of Morant as Morant circled the perimeter.
The Memphis Grizzlies let the possession materialize. Dillon Brooks dumped it down to Jaren Jackson Jr. posting up against the smaller Andrew Wiggins. But Jackson didn’t have much room to operate. Green had collapsed into his area to take away the lefty drive, ignoring Morant. So Jackson kicked it out to the wide-open Morant and Green didn’t even pretend to close out, stopping six feet short and letting Morant take the 3.
You probably noticed: Morant hit it. Then the next possession down, the Warriors developed a similar scheme. Gary Payton II went under on a high screen, Green didn’t hedge hard and Morant again buried an open left wing 3. The first six points of the series were on Morant 3s.
But that didn’t spook the Warriors away from their initial plan. This was Green later in that first quarter. Morant is trying to push the pace in transition. Three Warriors retreat into the paint to form a wall in front of the rim. Morant reluctantly backs it out. Green refuses to near the 3-point line. Morant lines up another wide-open shot. This one, he misses.
This is reminiscent of the defensive strategy the Warriors against Russell Westbrook back in the 2016 playoffs. Mid-prime Westbrook was a runaway freight train in transition, an explosive finisher at the rim and still had touch in the restricted area. If you pressed up on him, he’d blow past. But if you backed up, you had more room to cut off his drive and could lure him into a lower percentage jumper.
Here are two examples from that 2016 West finals. Andre Iguodala sinks off Westbrook on the first clip and Klay Thompson goes under a screen in the second, even knowing Draymond Green is in drop coverage. Westbrook misses a pair of open 3s.
That late contest from Green on the second Westbrook clip is notable. There was some talk after Warriors practice on Monday in Memphis that they let Morant walk into too many batting-practice 3s.
“You want to get a late contest, I guess,” Green said. “But if you fly out there trying to get a late contest, he is very elusive and will fly by you.”
Morant went 4-of-11 total. Those 11 attempts were one off a career high. He only took 20 total in the six Minnesota first-round games, never more than five in a single game. The Warriors are just fine with him reaching double-digits. They’d just prefer there’s at least a hand somewhere in Morant’s shooting vicinity once it’s clear he’s taking the jumper and can’t beat you with the drive.
These are three quick screenshot examples on three of Morant’s misses. Stephen Curry, Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. All sag off enough to bait Morant into the jumper, but spring forward for a late contest to make the shot a bit more challenging.
Morant is capable of burning this strategy. He actually did it once to the Warriors in a do-or-die situation.
Remember the final day of last regular season? The Warriors and Grizzlies faced off with the eighth seed on the line. The Warriors sagged off Morant and he went 1-of-6 from 3, giving the Warriors home court in a Play-In game late in the week. They kept the same strategy. With a playoff spot on the line, Morant made a career-high five 3s on 10 attempts and the Grizzlies advanced in overtime.
“He led the league in paint points for a reason at 6 feet, 6-foot-2, however tall he is,” Green said. “When’s the last time a guard led the league in paint points? Allen Iverson? So you gotta do all you can not to let him get there.”
That means living with the results of Morant’s jumper, even if he’s capable of an efficient night out there. That’s how it was with Westbrook. He had a couple of hot nights from deep in those West finals. In a Game 4 Thunder win, Westbrook went 4-of-8 from 3. But he also went 0-of-5 in that Game 6 gut-punch OKC loss and was 30.1 percent total in the series.
Morant has already proven to be a slightly better 3-point shooter early. Westbrook is at 30.5 percent for his career, Morant is at 32.7 percent through three seasons. But if it’s about assessing threat levels, they’re 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 at the rim. He’s done that since he came into the NBA. He’s the reason this (Memphis) franchise moved on from Mike Conley, who is a legend here. They moved on right away because they knew what they had. You know he can beat you getting to the rim. So you gotta try something different.”
Also similar to Westbrook, the Warriors are intent on making Morant work on the defensive end and exploiting some of his deficiencies. Morant, like Westbrook, has a tendency to lose focus off the ball and either fail to identify a cutter or box out.
When Morant is on Wiggins, they want him to attack the offensive glass. When Morant is on Payton, they want him to slash and cut and continually search for the open seam when Morant turns his back.
These two clips are from Game 1. In the first, Wiggins steps right past Morant for an easy rebound and putback. In the second — with less than two minutes remaining and Memphis up two — Payton slips behind Morant for a game-tying layup.
Here is Curry losing Westbrook on a cut back in that 2016 series.
When asked about those two Game 1 defensive miscues on Monday, Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins was defensive of his star. He said it was “completely incorrect” to pin the Payton back cut on Morant, saying that wasn’t his assignment, and then brought up the 26 second-chance points for the Warriors, believing it was a team-wide issue and not just Morant.
Fair. But this remains a targeted part of the Warriors’ strategy of attack. Morant had a productive Game 1. He finished with 34 points and 10 assists. But the Warriors were fine with the 31 shot attempts (and 11 attempted 3s) he needed to reach those numbers and continue to drag him into the mix on the other end, testing him physically and as a team defender. It’s what they once did to Westbrook and survived well enough to deem it a success.
(Top photo: Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)