Did you see what happened in Phoenix on Wednesday night? The Suns spent most of the game dragging Luka Doncic to a high screen, forcing them to switch and attacking what they considered the weakest defender in Dallas. Miami did it for Tra Young in the first round. Warriors, in space, did just that to Nikola Jokic over the course of that Denver series.
“The league has become a ‘choice’ league,” Steve Kerr said. “You turn on a lot of ball screens, and you bring in a specific person (and you target them).”
Ja Morant and the Grizzlies made their announcement in Memphis. They prefer to chase Jordan Bull. This 10-second clip clearly reveals it. Steph Curry and Kevin Looney are on the field. Clay Thompson in Brandon Clark. Clark comes in for a high screen. But Morant waves it away. Thompson does not want. Of all the options available, Poole is preferred.
It was at a rough time for Game 1. It was one of the rare properties that Paul opened in Morante. Andrew Wiggins is usually the primary defender, especially since Gary Payton II is no longer an option.
But warriors mostly used a switching scheme. This gives the isolated attacking player his choice. Paul, as identified, is Morant’s preferred target. So here’s Morant on a rough time in Game 2, pulling it off, sending Wiggins away and defeating Paul by dribbling.
This is the next stage of Paul’s ascent. He’s become such an offensive and productive playmaker in his third season that Steve Kerr can no longer pick and choose which flaws Paul will keep him off the ground. He must play otherwise the warriors’ attack cap will be greatly reduced. That’s why he currently stands at 33.3 minutes per game in these playoffs, ranking second in the team.
Payton’s injury stripped Kerr’s security blanket at closing time. He closed in with Payton on Paul in Game 5 of the Denver series and probably would have done while Morrant was cooking the Warriors last night, but Payton’s elbow is broken and his arm is in a brace and he’s out for the next month.
It’s pee or something. Looney and Draymond Green didn’t play a minute together in this Memphis series. The warriors intentionally separated them for the purposes of spacing. Maybe you’ll see Otto Porter Jr. or Jonathan Kominga. But the Warriors must score better to advance beyond Memphis. They had an ugly offensive rating of 106.3 in their first two matches. Pulling Paul off the ground tied them up more.
So, Paul must survive better against a targeted attack and the coaching staff to plan a better plan against Morant, shuffling the playing field. They’ve been sprinkled in some can-of-use mods as the series moves to San Francisco. Kerr was asked about sending double teams in Morant’s direction.
“It’s definitely an option,” Kerr said. “As you go through a streak, you have to be flexible. You have to be willing to adapt. If we adapt, that’s a possibility. How do we multiply? Where do we come from? What are we willing to give up? It’s all on the list.”
The Warriors doubled Morant for possession in the third quarter in Game Two. Paul was guarding rookie Zayer Williams. Contact Morant Williams for a screen and to anticipate the switch. Had the Warriors been playing Morant traditionally, Wiggins would have gone with Williams, and Paul would have put down the three-point streak and given Morant the No. 3 to protect him on the drive.
But Paul instead made a blistering move past the line and Wiggins caught a trap and a double team sent a surprised Morant back near half the field. It could lead to a spin. But Morant managed to get a panicked pass out of his hands and the ball found its way to the open Williams, who knocked out one of his four doubles.
Williams made just 31.4 percent of triples in the junior season. He stung the warriors in Game 2, but the percentages indicate that he is unlikely to repeat it, especially on the road in a hostile breakout environment. So I expect to increase the number of selective double teams from Morant, to help out Williams and Kyle Anderson.
But Kerr’s staff play-off history suggests they wouldn’t go overboard with regularly forcing the ball to get the ball out of Morant’s hands. Memphis scored just 106 points on Tuesday night. This should be enough to win the warriors. The attack problem – 101 points, 18 turnover, 7 of 38 of 3 – was their biggest problem, not Morant’s 47-point problem.
But even without sending in an extra body and harming the integrity of the defense at the back end, there are ways to avoid the relentless targeting of a favorite player. Warriors experienced in this. Steph Curry has spent a lot of the playoff series getting allowances and becoming an expert in stuffing the ball so it’s not on screen.
Paul initially tried on crucial possession in the second game. With three minutes to go, Morant was once again calling in Paul’s man to block Wiggins. But look carefully at Poole and Thompson near the left corner at the beginning of the clip. Poole tries to get Thompson to switch to De’Anthony Melton off the ball so he’s Thompson on Morant, not Poole. But Thompson does not see it and reacts in time, so Paul is forced to work again.
Draymond Green flies by the assist for the vertical and stop competition. Warriors need it to speed up the engines in the house. Because of the ejection and elbow in the eye, Greene wasn’t the same usually influential in Memphis. A better green can always erase more defensive issues for warriors.
But even the attempt to identify and deceive Poole in this clip is a positive sign. Thompson is the one who has been slow to respond. At 6 feet 4 feet tall, Paul has grown stronger, with quick hands and a sharp mind. There are plenty of people within the organization who believe he could at least become a regular defender, given his size, tools and level of commitment this season. Chris DeMarco, an assistant who works closely with Paul, used to show him clips of Gary Harris and Avery Bradley posing as a model for a similar mid-size example.
“There has been some growth in his ability to defend without errors,” Kerr said on Thursday. “He took a step back that night. He got his fifth foul 10 minutes before he came in. He has to trust the defense behind him. Show your hands. Don’t drag down. He had some really good games against Denver.”
Several people around the Warriors have mentioned the Nuggets series as Poole’s positive defensive growth. He’s been active on all of the series and even came up with some notable stops, like this one against Bones Hyland. Hyland is no Morant, but the principles used against him are similar. In this sequence, Paul shaded him in the right direction, not reaching and taking a charge directly.
Poole will not be able to hide against the Grizzlies. In 2022, no NBA player can hide in defense in the playoffs. The Warriors could rearrange the schemes to help him, but Memphis would draw Paul into action, and if the Warriors advanced, Phoenix could be even more ruthless. The spotlight on Paul’s defense over the next few weeks.
(Photo by Jordan Paul, Ja Morant and Steve Curry: Petrie Thomas/USA Today)