One of the most important and anticipated questions heading into the 2022 playoffs was how Ja Morant would be defended in a seven-game series. His game (blistering, paint-reliant) and status as the lone All-Star on a team with young talent that—Desmond Bane aside—isn’t known for spacing the floor, created a mix of skepticism and wonder.
Through nine pick-and-shovel games, Morant has mostly vindicated himself against myriad coverages (he leads the playoffs in points and assists). And despite potentially missing what would be his 10th game of these playoffs on Monday night due to a sore knee, there’s still quite a bit to glean from how he’s performed in two different series against two contrasting philosophies. Regardless of where the series stands after Game 4, if/when Morant returns to the floor he’ll be at the center of Golden State’s gameplan. And how they choose to treat him vs. how he responds to that treatment may still very well decide who advances to the conference finals.
In Round 1, the Timberwolves’ defensive strategy was simple: Put Morant in a box. “With the aggressiveness that they're gonna play, they're going to try to prioritize taking away the paint,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins explained during the series. “Which they've come out and said.”
The idea was to show Morant multiple bodies at all times. If he wanted to take threes or long twos, great. But layups, dunks and opportunities for him to draw fouls while attacking the rim were, ideally, off limits. In pick-and-rolls, Minnesota often had the defender on Morant’s screener stay level with the pick while his own man chased him over the top. Behind the action, there would be another Timberwolf in the paint while everyone else shrunk the floor by hovering in gaps that would otherwise be clear driving lanes.
As it relates to individual scoring, that scheme was a relative success: Morant made only 43.2% of his two-point shots (down from 53.4% during the regular season) and was held under 20 points in three of the series’ six games. Minnesota dared every other Grizzly to beat them, and they did—from Desmond Bane’s 27 threes to Tyus Jones thrusting a dagger straight through his hometown team’s heart in a nail-biting finale.
“I pretty much read the defense,” Morant recently said. “They take me away, I know my teammate’s open. They take my teammates away, then I go score. Cat and mouse. It's not as hard as people think.”
Morant didn’t stop coming, though. He forced the Timberwolves to execute on every possession and there are plenty of examples where he capitalized on their mistakes. In the first two games of Round 2, however, one could argue that the Warriors’ rigid strategy was the mistake.
Golden State might’ve finished the regular season with a better defense than Minnesota, but they’re much smaller and typically less willing to scramble. The playoffs are about matchups, and especially after Gary Payton II fractured his elbow, Morant showed how one opponent can be more conducive to his individual success than the other.
After that first-round battle, plays like this were a breath of fresh air.
Morant averaged 21.5 drives per game in the first round. That bumped up to 25 in the second round’s first two games. The most shots he took in any one game during the first round was 22. In Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference semifinals, Morant went off for 81 points on 62 shots.
In those first two games there were certainly plays where the Warriors adopted Minnesota’s mindset, but they mostly chose to stay home on Memphis’s shooters, culminating in Game 2’s fateful crunchtime with a tsunami of floaters, layups and dunks from Morant, who stomped on single coverage, unrestricted as his most propulsive self.
Morant could still have terrorized Golden State’s defensive adjustments by feeding open teammates behind the three-point line or cutting to the basket, but Steve Kerr’s refusal to make any was perplexing. There was no tweak at the point of attack and backline defenders were unable to force a pass, often meeting him at the dotted line, right as Morant was already planted for liftoff. During one of the season’s biggest stretches, as the opposing team’s best player scored 15 straight points in the last four minutes, Kerr was hypnagogic.
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In Game 3, there was no crunchtime. The Grizzlies lost by 30 and, after he scored 34 points in 36 minutes, Morant exited midway through the fourth quarter with a knee injury. Golden State’s deliberate shot selection was probably the No. 1 reason they had so much success, and its third-quarter run wouldn’t have happened had the Warriors not taken care of the ball as well as they did. But Golden State’s defense against Morant tightened up, too.
“Even though Ja had another huge night, I thought we made things tougher on him at the rim,” Kerr said. “He scored some buckets over some really good verticality plays, which we’ll live with.”
With Morant, someone who does most of his damage in the paint, making him finish over a strong contest is critical. But success can also be found erasing those shots before they even happen. Morant had 10 fewer field goal attempts and eight fewer free throws on Saturday night than he did in Game 2.
The Warriors went zone far more than in the first two games and did a better job packing the paint during stretches when the scoreboard wasn’t so lopsided. It was a flurry of mutating coverages. They put two on the ball more and, with Draymond Green and Kevon Looney, even (finally) blitzed him a few times in the second half.
The Grizzlies didn’t ignore Morant’s teammates, but they also weren’t willing to let him turn Jordan Poole and Otto Porter Jr. into matadors. Especially when the Grizzlies had two bigs on the floor, Green didn’t think twice about helping in the paint. Here, he plugs the paint and then races back to run Jaren Jackson Jr. off the three-point line. Just incredible stuff.
The fact that Morant still managed to score an efficient 34 points after Game 2’s explosive finish speaks to how much of a magic act his skill-set can be. The Warriors threw the kitchen sink at him in Game 3 and, in some ways, it still didn’t matter. Whenever he reappears in the series, it’ll be interesting to see how Kerr, Green and everyone else involved balance their aggression against a team that has struggled to supplement Morant’s production. Do they still try and take him out, or is it more useful to silence his backup singers?
“You have to stop the guys you can stop,” Green said after Game 3. “Because it’s very hard to stop Ja.”
That mindset obviously changes if Memphis’s 21-year-old superstar indeed doesn’t participate in Game 4. But one of the most fascinating chess matches in the second round will pick up where it left off once he’s back in action. And if we’ve learned one thing so far, it’s that even on the biggest stage, there is no blueprint for slowing Morant down.
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