After Gary Payton II got walloped by Dillon Brooks and broke his elbow in the opening minutes of Game 2, Andrew Wiggins became the primary defender against Ja Morant. Wiggins didn’t have nearly the success bothering him off the dribble as Payton did in Game 1. Morant tied a playoff career-high with 47 points and got wherever he wanted with the ball in a 106-101 victory to even the Grizzlies’ second-round series with the Warriors.
It was a signature performance of Morant’s young career. The Memphis star is just the third player in league history to score 45 or more points twice in the playoffs before turning 23, joining LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. That’s the popular stat that went around social media last night, and rightfully so. Morant is on a must-watch level resembling the likes of prime Allen Iverson and Derrick Rose in terms of his style and spirit. Ja drops jaws and just makes you go “wow.”
Solving Morant’s penetration is a pressing concern for the Warriors, who now lack an elite point-of-attack defender like Payton. The 6-foot-3 stopper would’ve been a lock for an All-Defensive team this season had he averaged 30-plus minutes. Steve Kerr put him in the starting lineup against the Grizzlies for good reason. Payton is the best equipped player on the team to match Morant’s quickness. While Wiggins is longer, he just doesn’t have the same speed.
Morant drove to the basket 26 times in Game 2, and he feasted in the paint, generating 32 points on such plays. It didn’t matter who defended him, but Jordan Poole especially will likely want to forget Tuesday’s fourth quarter:
that was an epic by Ja Morant pic.twitter.com/b7RkCv5e7R— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) May 4, 2022
It’s too much to expect Steph Curry to defend Morant the whole game while carrying his tremendous workload on offense, but he’ll obviously need to pitch in with Payton out. Years ago, the Warriors would have turned to Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, or Shaun Livingston. But Livingston is retired, Iguodala is 38 and missed the first two games of the series, and the Klay of old isn’t back yet.
Thompson looks the way you’d expect someone to look after a two-year absence. A bit slower-footed, less explosive. He has regressed well below his prior stopper status that earned him a 2018-19 All-Defensive team selection. He doesn’t move as fluidly as he did back then, which is understandable given his circumstances. But he can’t be considered a solution on defense anymore, particularly against a talent as explosive as Morant.
Simply put, Ja is a major problem for Golden State. He’s scooting by everyone. The question now is: What will the Warriors do about it?
So far in this series, when Morant has run a pick-and-roll, the Warriors have typically switched. That’s the way they defended James Harden back in his heyday, too. In their seven-game series in 2018, the Warriors switched on 56 percent of pick-and-rolls run by Harden, according to Second Spectrum.
Against Morant in these playoffs, the Warriors are switching 51 percent of screens. But the Grizzlies are shredding them, scoring 1.2 points per chance.
The Warriors haven’t always switched a ton of screens in the playoffs, though. In a 2018-19 sweep of the Trail Blazers, they blitzed or showed 39.6 percent of the time against Damian Lillard. Those are more aggressive forms of defense, with two players coming over the top to pressure the ball handler.
If no one can stop Morant one-on-one, blitzing or trapping is certainly worth a try. The Warriors actually trapped Ja once in Game 2 and he nearly turned it over, helplessly launching a pass over his head as he fell into the backcourt:
But it was just that kind of night for Golden State. Even though Morant’s pass led to a 3-point attempt by 31.4 percent shooter Ziaire Williams, the Grizzlies rookie knocked it down. But the Warriors can live with those types of plays and will take them over a Morant attack into the paint.
In Game 3 and beyond, maybe we’ll see Golden State increase the pressure on Morant, like it once did against Lillard. The Warriors allowed the sixth-fewest points when blitzing or showing in a pick-and-roll during the regular season, according to Second Spectrum. They’re good enough to at least try.
Morant also loves to go left. The Warriors liked to switch against Harden screens, but they also tried to force him to go to his right. That type of effort hasn’t been made yet in this series. In Game 2, Morant went left on 20 of his 26 drives, or 77 percent of the time. According to Second Spectrum, Ja went left on 68 percent of his drives during the season, which is one of the highest rates in the league. It’s the direction he prefers to attack from.
But sending Ja right won’t necessarily help since he tends to shred going that way too. This season, the Grizzlies scored at nearly identical rates when Morant drove left (1.017 points per possession) or right (1.018). The old game plan hasn’t worked as well against Morant as it did in his rookie season.
Grizzlies fans have seen Morant do miraculous things since he arrived in Memphis. He’s just now doing it more often, and on an even bigger stage. Morant had 34 points in Game 1 and almost made the game-winning layup. He had 47 in Game 2, almost single-handedly carrying his team to victory.
The Grizzlies need him to keep it up. Desmond Bane was severely limited by the back injury he suffered in Game 1. Tyus Jones and De’Anthony Melton were a combined 3-for-12 in Game 2. Morant might be all they have. The Warriors must find a way to stop him.