Monday, May 23, 2022

Warriors-Grizzlies: If Golden State can’t stop Ja Morant, should it hunt him more on defense in Game 3?

Prior to the start of the fourth quarter of the Golden State Warriors‘ Game 5 series-clinching win over the Denver Nuggets, Steve Kerr was asked by TNT’s Jared Greenberg how he planned to “exploit” Nikola Jokic, who would be operating with five fouls whenever he reentered the game. 

“Just play,” Kerr said. “You don’t try to manipulate the game that way. You just play.”

Greenberg was effectively asking Kerr if the Warriors would hunt Jokic on the defensive end, forcing him to defend pick-and-rolls and hopefully leveraging him into a one-on-one assignment with one of Golden State’s guards, who could then attack in search of either contact or a clear lane courtesy of an overly careful defender’s reluctance to engage. 

The question would’ve applied whether or not Jokic — an improved overall defender who nevertheless remains vulnerable on the perimeter — was up against his foul threshold, and Kerr’s answer, a nod to his macro basketball beliefs, is now informing Golden State’s approach to combatting Ja Morant and the Grizzlies

So far, the Warriors have played it pretty straight with Morant, who nuked them for 47 points in Game 2. And that goes for both ends of the court. They’re not doubling him very often on the offensive end, just as they’re not singling him out very often on the defensive end. 

This is the exception to what has become the rule of combatting these high-usage superstars: You have to make them work on both ends. The Heat went after Trae Young like the wounded gazelle that he is on the defensive end. The Suns have relentlessly gone at Luka Doncic, putting him in 19 ball screens in the second half of Game 2 and scoring 1.81 points per chance on those possessions, per ESPN and Second Spectrum

Doncic being a vulnerable defender is only half the reason for attacking him. The other half is the sheer energy expenditure, which, in theory, should compromise the offense of an otherwise indefensible superstar down the stretch of games. It worked in Game 2, when Doncic scored 24 points in the first half (with a staggering 45 percent usage rate) but just 11 in the second half as Phoenix ran away late. 

It’s the same deal with Morant, a superstar scorer who can be exploited defensively. Except, the Warriors aren’t exploiting him. Not consistently, at least. Like with Jokic in the first round, they are manipulating matchups, or at least actions, late in games to involve Morant, but it hasn’t been a steady strategy, and it’s likely not going to be moving forward. 

When the Warriors have hunted Morant, they’ve gotten results. One thing Memphis has made abundantly clear is it does not want Morant switched onto Curry (even though it has strangely just assigned Morant to Curry on occasion), which, in the play below, is how Andrew Wiggins winds up with a corner 3. 

It’s simple: Curry inbounds, and Morant’s man, Otto Porter, immediately screens for him. Under normal circumstances, Morant would switch onto Curry, but because he doesn’t want to do that, Curry is left wide open at the top of the key, at which point Tre Jones has to rotate over to him. That leaves Jordan Poole uncovered, forcing Brandon Clarke to rotate up to him, which finally leaves Wiggins in the corner ready for a catch and shoot. This all started by manipulating Morant. 

Here’s the reverse, with Curry coming up to screen Morant. In the split-second confusion of Morant not wanting to switch and Ziaire Williams thinking he’s going to, Curry slips away for a wide-open 3. 

Here it’s Morant’s man, Poole, screening for Curry, forcing Morant to defend Curry one on one. Curry attacks immediately and blows right past him. 

Here Draymond Green sees Morant on Andrew Wiggins and leads him right into a post-up. There is nothing more to this that Green seeing a mismatch and abandoning all other possessional plans to exploit it. 

But for every late-game possession like this, there have been scores of others throughout this series where Morant has been afforded the luxury of more or less hanging out, only tasked with defending if the possession organically evolves into his inclusion. Here he’s assigned to Wiggins, who doesn’t move out of the corner as the Warriors run multiple actions until, fittingly enough, Wiggins beats Morant to an offensive board. 

Here again Morant is allowed to chill in the corner on Wiggins as the Warriors try their luck with Desmond Bane, Tre Jones and Jaren Jackson Jr., all good to great defenders. The possession goes nowhere and Morant doesn’t burn one calorie. 

Over the course of a game, these energy savings add up to a fresh Morant at the end, when he completely took over in Game 2 and pretty much single-handedly defeated Golden State. Perhaps that plays out a bit differently if his tank is closer to empty in the fourth quarter. Then again, perhaps not. The teams that hunt star scorers on defense have their beliefs, and Kerr has his. 

To Kerr, it’s about opportunity cost. Hunting Morant means bogging the rest of the offense down, and as we’ve seen over the years with his commitment to ball and player movement over simply putting control of a possession in the hands of the best pick-and-roll player in history, Kerr is not going to compromise his ethos. 

Ultimately, he puts his faith more in what the Warriors do well than what their opponents don’t do well. All five of his players are going to be involved, forcing all five of your defenders to be involved. This distributes the burden relatively evenly on both sides, and while this approach surely helps Curry from running into the same predictable pitfalls of other heavy on-ball superstars, the rub is a player like Morant can also bask in the defensive breathers he’s afforded, saving most of his energy to, well, score 47 points. 

Heading into a huge Game 3 on Saturday with the series tied 1-1, it’ll be interesting whether Kerr might deviate from his typical pursuit of these organic, equal-opportunity outcomes and at least try to manipulate some more Morant matchups, particularly in the first half, if only to start the drain on his tank earlier. Short of selling out to double Morant on the other end, which Kerr also said is “on the menu,” this two-way tax could end up being Golden State’s only chance of slowing Morant down in crunch time. 

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