Basketball is an intuitive game.
Take young star Evan Mobley, for instance. His nimble and balletic defensive loadout makes him a versatile cornerback capable of tagging multiple positions on the court.
In the same token, one can reasonably assume that the frailer stature that enables such agileness comes with the drawback of causing him to get bullied by stronger bigs on the low block.
The point of that illustration is to point out that basketball analysis and scouting contain many opportunities for logical inferences based on things that we as humans know to be true from our day-to-day experiences.
With that said, basketball is also a counterintuitive game.
For example, look no further than this year’s Western Conference semifinals that feature a clash between the league’s leader in points in the paint (PITP) in the Memphis Grizzlies and the unit boasting the second-highest 3-point rate in the NBA in the Golden State Warriors.
The intuitive deduction to make here would be that we see a similar phenomenon play out in this…wait what??
2022 Western Conference Semifinals
It appears the roles have been reversed. What’s going on here?
Playoff basketball, at its core, is all about concessions. Even the best defenses of all time can’t completely suffocate all of their opponents’ modes of attack, so they need to pick and choose which avenues they will hone in on stopping and which ones they are willing to concede.
Thus far, the Warriors have chosen to deter Memphis’ resident paint demon from venturing into his hunting grounds in pursuit of another signature Ja-breaker. To do so, they have opted to sag off him, inviting him to shoot pull-up jumpers, and then proceeding to contest his 3-point attempts softly.
And to his credit, Morant has done an admiral job of cashing in on these opportunities – canning 43.3% of his looks from downtown.
The problem for Memphis is his success from deep has come with two more damaging issues. First, the Warriors’ initiative has led to a dip in Morant’s free throws (the most efficient shot in basketball) – going from 11.0 per game in Round 1 to 7.0 per game in this series.
Second, Morant is now taking fewer shots in the painted area (the second most efficient shot in the game). After 71.6% of his shots came in the paint during the regular season, 67.9% of his looks are now in that area.
Lastly, the rest of his teammates have not been hitting enough 3s (the third-most efficient shot) to coerce the Warriors into adjusting their original plan. Outside of Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. (who has also been unsustainably hot from 3), the rest of the group is shooting a pedestrian 21 of 74 (28.3%).
With the exception of the team’s lone marksman Desmond Bane (who the Warriors have played wonderfully), Golden State has chosen to guard the other shooters the way they have guarded Morant – opting to contain dribble penetration over closing out hard on a potential shot.
On the opposite end, the Grizzlies have decided that they aren’t going to let a team armed to the teeth with all-time great shooters get off a ton of 3s. And that’s a cool idea, until it’s not.
To execute this game plan, Memphis’ off-ball defenders have been playing the Splash Trio topside to halt them from curling out to the 3-point line. The downside of this technique is that it leaves the defender vulnerable to back cuts like this:
Also, look at where Draymond Green has Jackson Jr. located to start.
Green isn’t a viable shooting threat, but he is a threat to participate in a dribble handoff action with Stephen Curry, so Jackson Jr. must play him close in anticipation of that two-man set coming to fruition.
On ball screen actions, the Grizzlies (as many teams do against Golden State because of its shooters) have been trapping the ball handler, opening up the lane for the Warriors’ rollers to slip seamlessly through the cracks.
Look closely again. Each of these clips features a situation in which a help defender is slow to rotate over because they’re worried about leaving a member of the Warriors’ shooting troika open for 3.
When Memphis starts switching these actions, the Warriors start matchup hunting – with their primary prey being Morant. Jordan Poole, in particular, has created a ton of breakdowns by going at Morant (as has Morant on Poole, for that matter), and it’s allowing the Warriors to get clean looks at the rim or via the kick-out passes that follow these crusades.
The latter portion of that last statement is worth noting here. The Warriors may not be heaving 3s at their usual rate, but whenever they do hoist one up, they are getting a high-quality look thanks to the advantage created by their dribble penetration. In Game 3, the Warriors shot 11 fewer 3s than the Grizzlies did, but still ended up winning the 3-pointers made battle (17-16).
Many of these high-percentage looks were attempted by their ancillary guys (Jonathon Kuminga, Otto Porter Jr. and Andrew Wiggins), and unlike the Grizzlies’ supporting cast, this trio was able to capitalize on the advantages created by their stars – nailing seven of their 11 Game 3 3-pointers.
The Grizzlies will surely come back with adjustments, but with the Warriors being seemingly better equipped to exploit their opponents’ concessions (and Morant’s status for Game 4 now uncertain), Memphis’ prospects for turning this series around appear bleak.
And that likely portends another Western Conference finals birth for the re-emerging Golden State dynasty.
Graphic design by Matt Sisneros.
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