Taylor Jenkins has undeniably done a fantastic job leading the Memphis Grizzlies this season, exceeding all expectations and coming to the brink of the eighth seed in the West. With a chance to lead his team to an improbable playoff berth in the play-in series against Portland, how did the rookie head coach fare? I took a deep dive into the film room to find out what shaped his gameplan against the star-studded Portland Trail Blazers in the play-in game.
From the opening minutes up until the fourth quarter, it was clear that the Grizzlies were seeking the Blazers’ bigs to switch onto Ja Morant. When the Grizzlies were successful in forcing this switch, Morant was easily able to get downhill for shots around the basket and was able to draw fouls. One flaw in the gameplan that I found was floor spacing. Multiple times I found Kyle Anderson one pass away from the ball. Due to Anderson’s lack of shooting, his defender was able to help off of him to clog the gaps and give Morant less room to work. A better shooter in the position of Anderson would create much better spacing.
Portland’s coach, Terry Stotts, recognized that the Grizzlies wanted to force switches with Morant and the Blazers’ bigs. To counter this, he had his team throw just about every defensive coverage in the book at Morant to try to slow him down. Sometimes the switches were inevitable and Morant was able to take advantage, but some other coverages were more effective.
A common coverage that Morant has seen a lot of this year has been ICE coverage, where the defense attempts to contain the ballhandler to the sideline and keep him from using screens that allow him to dribble back to the middle. Unfortunately for Portland, their bigs were often time slightly out of position. Due to this, Morant was often able to snake his way into the middle of the floor to get shots up in the paint, kick out to shooters after the defense collapses, or hit the screener rolling to the rim.
At times, the Portland defense would completely deny the ball to Ja Morant, with his defender positioning himself between Morant and the ballhandler to take away any passing angles. The Blazers also used top lock coverage against Morant to try to keep him from coming around pindown screens, which is usually employed against the league’s best stars and sharpshooters. To counter this, Taylor Jenkins ran Morant off a series of screens to get separation from his defender so that he could receive the ball.
Another defensive tactic that the Blazers used to try to stop Ja Morant was hedging on ballscreens. A hedge is used to either keep the ballhandler from turning the corner and driving or to simply force the ball out of his hands. The hedges were poorly executed by Portland, and Morant did a great job reading the defense and making the correct plays based on defensive positioning.
When watching Portland’s ballscreen coverage, I found it curious how much they fought over the screens against not only Ja Morant but other non-shooters like Kyle Anderson. Fighting over the screens usually allows the ballhandler to work into the middle of the court where they can then manipulate the defensive big to find a window for a shot or a pass. Other teams have had considerable success dramatically going under screens against the Grizzlies (New Orleans comes to mind immediately), but there wasn’t nearly as much daring to shoot from behind the screens as I anticipated.
While much of the success against these different coverages can be chalked up to Ja Morant being spectacular, Taylor Jenkins deserves credit for having his players prepared to adjust to the different coverages on the fly and exploiting the holes in the Blazers’ spotty defense.
Digging into the film on the play-in game and I know we've all already said it but Ja Morant had a MASTERFUL offensive game— Eric (@EricTweetsNBA) August 21, 2020
When playing against the Blazers, the most daunting task is defending Damian Lillard. In the three games before the play-in game, Lillard was on a historic run. He scored 51, 61, and then 42 points in consecutive games to keep his team alive in the playoff race.
In the play-in game, Lillard scored 31 points on a somewhat unimpressive 6-15 from the field and 5-14 from three. He also tallied 10 assists and shot 14 free throws, making all 14. His main defender was Dillon Brooks, though he was defended by several different Grizzlies guards including Morant, De’Anthony Melton, and Kyle Anderson. Much of his success came as the Grizzlies were playing drop coverage, the main coverage that they have deployed all season. It quickly became apparent that dropping the big would not work and the Grizzlies turned to hedging on ballscreens to keep him contained, but slow-footed bigs like Jonas Valanciunas and Gorgui Dieng can’t be expected to be able to hedge successfully on every single screen. Overall, I feel the gameplan against Lillard worked well and held him to below his usual standards.
The part of the Blazers’ offense that Taylor Jenkins had no answer for was how the Blazers attacked Ja Morant. It wasn’t until the end of the game that they forced him to defend the ball, but during the rest of the game they made Morant work off the ball on defense. They ran him off multiple screens on most plays to get separation for CJ McCollum (Morant’s primary matchup) to get the ball in space. It left Jenkins with a dilemma because he couldn’t switch Morant onto Lillard as it would create the same issue. He couldn’t switch Morant onto a forward like Carmelo Anthony or Gary Trent Jr. because they would then have the size advantage and are more than capable of taking Morant into the post.
Clutch Time Execution
Coming down the wire with the Grizzlies up by one with 3:30 remaining, the season was on the line. Offensively, the set plays called by Taylor Jenkins worked. Multiple calls in the last few minutes were disguised as usual sets with an unexpected twist thrown in that left the defense off guard and unable to properly defend the play. Unfortunately, some poor execution in the pick and roll led to a very costly turnover while down four and led to a mid-range bucket from CJ McCollum to extend the Portland lead to six. The final play out of a timeout was very well executed to get Dillon Brooks a three, but it was too little too late.
Defensively, the Grizzlies (specifically Ja Morant) struggled. CJ McCollum very deliberately isolated on Ja Morant three times, scoring 7 points on those three occasions. Even when Taylor Jenkins switched the matchup to Dillon Brooks, the Blazers sought out Morant in the pick and roll to try to force a switch. The Grizzlies didn’t want Morant on McCollum on the last isolation play, but he was forced to pick him up in semi-transition. The Blazers, expecting a double team, ran actions on the weak side to keep all help defenders occupied and give McCollum space to work. With the Grizzlies down three and playing defense with 25 seconds to go, Lillard drove right past Grayson Allen like he wasn’t even there, forcing the help and a blown weak side assignment from Ja Morant leaves Carmelo Anthony open for the corner three to seal the game and put a final nail in the coffin of the Grizzlies’ season.
The gameplan was solid. The execution was solid. It just wasn’t enough. I don’t fault Taylor Jenkins or any of the players for coming up short in the play-in game. Jenkins had his team ready to compete and did not back down from the challenge on the biggest stage. Unfortunately, a very good Portland team and injuries to starters left the Grizzlies overmatched. This game is nothing to be ashamed of and Grizzlies fans have reason to be optimistic about not only the development of the players but also of the development of a budding young coach in Taylor Jenkins.