Ja Morant had a good start.
He took off from the backcourt, hovered over human pinball Gary Payton II and received a drop beyond the 3-point arc from Brandon Clarke, who had made an inbound pass with just seconds remaining and the Grizzlies in lost one. The All-Star point guard dribbled to the hoop and recovered a left-handed faceoff under Klay Thompson’s tight arm. It ricocheted off the glass too hard and never hit the rim.
The buzzer sounded and the Grizzlies lost Game 1 of their second-round playoff series to the Warriors, 117-116, at FedExForum.
BOX SCORE: Warriors 117, Grizzlies 116
“It’s a shot he can make in his sleep,” said Jaren Jackson Jr., who played his best game of the playoffs on Sunday, recording 33 points and 10 rebounds, including a 6-of-9 performance from by 3 points. “He had a good start. His body was moving forward, so it was just a little hard, but he knows I’m with this shot every day of the week. I want him to shoot it a million more times, and I love that he took it.
Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins put Morant — who finished Game 1 with 34 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists — in the backcourt early in the game, allowing him to receive the ball while still already moving at full speed. There may not be anyone in the league who can outrun Morant. So, with a relentless defender guarding him for one more game, Jenkins let the speedster go wide and sprint to the basket.
The Grizzlies executed it properly, but Morant couldn’t finish.
“It’s a tough shot, though,” said Clarke, who had 12 points and nine rebounds off the bench. “He goes so fast on his left, and he should have been perfect and done perfect stuff. … He just shot a little too hard, but that’s part of basketball and we’ll be back next game and I’m sure Ja is going to do a bunch of lay-ups.
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Morant likes these scoops. He slips through crowds and angles in panel layups. If he found just a little more daylight, if Thompson hadn’t helped his man, Clarke, get in the way of the dribbler, then the point guard might have been able to complete a play reminiscent of the first basket at 2 game points: a Morant bunny with an extra English, as it looked like he had somehow ducked under the defenders by jumping over them. Morant has a way of making viewers question physics. He had made a lay-up left from almost the same spot just three minutes earlier as well.
He released the first one as he was descending, past the top of his jumper. No one in the world tries lay-ups more than Morant once gravity has already started doing its job. It creates this optical illusion, which makes it look like it’s floating for a brief second.
But the buzzer one didn’t float.
“I’ve seen Ja do that layup a thousand times,” Jackson said, to hell with the math. “More times in the clutch.”
Payton was in Morant’s grill at the start of the play. The irony, of course, is that it took Morant venturing 70 feet from the edge for a Warriors player to come within feet of him.
The Warriors ran through various defenders on Morant throughout their Game 1 win. Payton spent assets on him, as did Thompson, as did rookie winger Jonathan Kuminga and veteran winger Andrew Wiggins and others. But regardless of who was tasked with hobbling the NBA’s newest point guard, Golden State implemented an overarching strategy: turn him into a jump shooter.
The Warriors saw Morant’s speed. They watched highlight reels from lay-up after lay-up. Morant can beat defenses from anywhere, but there’s one place they were trying to take away from him – the paint.
Morant adapted to Golden State’s drafts. He wasn’t the reason the Grizzlies lost. Whenever the Memphis defense was a little slow in rotation, the Warriors found an open shooter. Sometimes that open shooter found an even more open shooter. Golden State clawed back too many long rebounds, especially late. Dillon Brooks and Desmond Bane both shot poorly; they combined for just six field goal marks. Bane did not close the game.
“We were just kind of keeping pace with who was playing well for us,” Jenkins said.
But of all the notable trends or moments we saw in Game 1 (Jackson’s crazy performance, Draymond Green’s ejection, Jordan Poole’s 31 points, De’Anthony Melton’s re-emergence, Warriors putting Grizzlies in the rotation cycle every time Memphis moved to the wrong place defensively) how Golden State guarded Morant might be the thing that affects the series the most down the line.
Strategies evolve throughout a series. So far, this one has already grown out of it. The Warriors challenged Morant to shoot. Early on, he made them pay.
Golden State’s defenders went under the screens several times to start the game. Morant threw a lot of 3s. He ended up with 11 long-range attempts, sinking four of them. It’s not his usual game. Before Sunday, he hadn’t even taken more than five 3s in a game in nearly two months.
Defenders didn’t just dare Morant to hoist jumpers on pick-and-rolls. They sagged on him when he didn’t have the ball. Dramatically. When he caught passes, they reacted like he had cooties.
As play continued, Morant began to attack more. He went to paint. He’s been building up steam against the Warriors’ less experienced defensemen. At one point, after a float over Kuminga to end the first half, cameras caught him repeating, “He can’t keep me.”
Sagging a dynamic finisher is a conventionally deployed strategy because a defense doesn’t trust the opposing player’s jumper, but giving Morant that space does more than encourage 3s and midrange looks. If he settles, he also doesn’t create as much for his midfield teammates.
He settled less throughout the game, especially during the second half, which didn’t include the world’s greatest defender, Green, who was sent off with just over a minute left in the game. second quarter because of a flagrant foul 2 on Clarke. . When Green guards the back of a pick-and-roll and another top-notch defender goes under a screen, it’s much harder for Morant to fight his way to the hole. And don’t discount Green’s absence from any opponent’s decision-making conversations. Morant took seven shots from the half court while Green was on the floor on Sunday. Only two of them were in the paint.
Still, there were times when Morant didn’t care what the Warriors wanted him to do and instead grabbed the moment for himself. Even as a top-notch defense focused on keeping out of the paint, he took 12 shots in the restricted area.
The Warriors know where they want Morant to be, and it will present some tough decisions.
For example, they moved Payton to the starting lineup for Game 1, but brought him back to the bench for the start of the third quarter, when Poole replaced him in the first unit. Payton is a physical keeper, peddler of balls. No one can stop a player of Morant’s caliber one-on-one, but Payton can be as close as anyone. Still, Poole – who went 12 of 20 from the floor, including five 3-pointers – was shaping up to be the Warriors’ main threat. How could Kerr keep him out?
Of course, if Kerr chooses to return to Poole with the starters for Game 2, it could mean Morant is trying harder to find a weaker defender. Late in the game, Poole got stuck on Morant, and Morant slid easily to the holeshot for a go-ahead. The bucket came moments after Payton was taken out of the game.
The Warriors tried all kinds of defenders on Morant, and he responded with a line worthy of Morant.
His points, rebounds and assists on 14 of 31 shooting and 4 of 11 3-pointers are nothing to sneeze at, but the Warriors accomplished the overall point of their strategy: they made Morant make some different decisions. which we normally see Morant do, especially early on.
He only reached the free-throw line three times as well.
We have to wait less than 48 hours to see how he and the Warriors react in Game 2 on Tuesday night. Of course, Morant might not miss that left-handed scoop a second time.
“I missed a layup that I normally do all the time,” he said. “Next, though.”
(Photo by Morant: Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)