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Beating the blitz with Ja Morant

Opposing defenses are blitzing Ja Morant to get the ball out of his hands. I come up with ways they can counter those blitzes.

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Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The Memphis Grizzlies are struggling, and so is their star point guard.

After a 7-game winning streak, where it looked like the young Grizzlies were firing on all cylinders, this 4-game losing skid hasn’t been pretty. A big part of that is the offense and how opposing defenses are scheming against Ja Morant. They’re blitzing Morant to take the ball out of his hands, forcing his 4 other teammates to create plays. That strategy has stalled the Grizzlies offense, and more specifically their starting point guard. He’s averaging 14.8 points and 6.8 assists, while shooting 32.1% from the field and 25.0% from 3, in these past four games.

Granted, a lot of these problems will be fixed from other players returning. Yes, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow are two primary inactive players who could make a huge difference. They’re also missing Brandon Clarke and De’Anthony Melton — as the former provide a nice burst of athleticism in the front court off rolls and putbacks, and the latter is a quality secondary playmaker with a budding offensive game.

However, they got to work with what they got, and it’s imperative to get Ja Morant going to return to their winning ways.

After Monday’s game, Morant told the media that he needed to attack and counter the defensive coverages by getting off-ball and capitalize on rotations. So, how could they attack these defensive schemes to get their lead guard going and to find their way back into the wins column?

Houston Rockets v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

More Ja with Tyus

One of the easiest ways the Grizzlies could get Ja Morant off-ball for scoring looks is to play Tyus Jones with him more often. Jones is the team’s 2nd-best playmaker on the team, averaging 5.6 assists, who also takes tremendous care of the ball (assist-to-turnover ratio of 5.9). If anyone could connect with Ja to his spots, it’s Jones.

It gets Morant downhill, while the defense is shifting their attention away for a moment, and the explosive guard could find his way to the lane. Like he did against DeAndre Ayton prior to the postponement of their season.

This is a particular sequence that can be utilized in many variations to get the defense discombobulated. They have Jones on the opposite side of the floor, so that whenever he swings to Morant, it forces a bigger shift in the defense. It then forces the misdirection and allows Ja to find space with the Xavier Tillman screen to get downhill.

There are other ways they could get Morant off ball alongside Jones. The threat of Jones’ floater could be a factor, and he could use his deft playmaking to find Morant out on the perimeter to explode towards the rim. Or, they could use Morant simply as a cutter some possessions as well.

Ultimately, pairing them together maximizes the time you want to give Ja Morant, while not minimizing minutes for Jones. Morant should be playing around 35 minutes each night — as a frame of reference, he played 31 and 36 minutes against New Orleans and Toronto, respectively. That leaves 13 point guard minutes available, and Jones is too good and important for that low of minutes. The Morant-Jones pairing could get their best scorer going, while also trimming the rotation a bit.

Miami Heat v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Point Kyle

Kyle Anderson is the team’s best secondary playmaker, given his size and assist numbers. He’s currently 3rd on the team in assists per game (3.8) and 4th in assist percentage (18.9%), only behind the two point guards and De’Anthony Melton.

Too many times in this losing streak, it’s felt like Anderson has been relegated to being more of a corner-man rather than a secondary facilitator. Putting the ball in his hands more often creates an advantage, as he’d be playmaking from the 4 spot and letting Morant roam off ball.

It could even as simple as the action here, where they use Anderson as the passer to get Morant going off a screen. Jevon Carter bites on the screen, and Ja hits a jab towards it to get going opposite of the pick.

However, Anderson showcased his playmaking prowess in Morant’s absence (averaging 5 assists a game in the 8 games he was out). When it comes to unlocking the best version of Ja Morant while they’re shorthanded, Anderson is the best option here.

San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

DHO / High Screen Actions with Valanciunas

The Memphis Grizzlies missed Jonas Valanciunas. He’s a big body that knows how to use it to corral rebounds and set hard screens.

In particular, Valanciunas’ screen-setting could be a huge factor in countering these blitzes, as surely a defender would get caught by one of his picks. In addition, it also is a great form of creating space.

He generates 3.4 screen assists a game, which ranks among the top 25 in the league, and he also averages 1.9 assists — most of them coming off dribble hand-off’s.

That’s a perfect design to get Ja Morant off the counters, as his man would (figuratively) die on the screen, while Valanciunas’ man is either dropping or switching.

The biggest thing here is how much space is created. It could allow him to get a more open, more set shot from 3. As we’ve seen, even if Morant is given an opening, he can strike to the basket. So defenses will pick their poison here: a Morant drive, a Valanciunas layup off the pass, or a kick out to an open shooter from 3.

It’s also a set that puts the team’s two best available players in position to score. When you’re without 4 rotation players (2 being starters), that seems like a sound strategy.

Toronto Raptors v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Everything will be fine.

The Grizzlies will have reinforcements on the way in the form of Jackson, Winslow, Clarke, and Melton. The perimeter players will find their shots, and Ja Morant will snap out of this slump.

Every young team has growing pains.

With that being said, they have to weather the storm and rekindle their magic from the 7-game winning streak, and it all starts with Ja Morant. He’s shown that he can get back to that high level of play he was at during the beginning of the season, with strong stretches in the past 3 games. In the fourth quarter though, teams are expending lots of their energy getting the ball out of his hands to force others to make plays.

It’ll be okay though. They’ll adjust, and Ja Morant will return to being the All-Star guard that was ripping through the league prior to the COVID postponements.

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