The Minnesota Timberwolves have been looking to throw Ja Morant off his game. They’re blitzing him by trapping him off ball screens and collapsing on his drives. Full attention is on Morant, and they’re doing so to cut down the number of avenues he has to score in the paint.
Give the Timberwolves credit. It’s worked to a degree. Morant is averaging 22.4 points on only 40.2% shooting from the field — down from his season mark of 49.3%. He also hasn’t gotten to his floater as much, as he’s shot 4-14 from the area between the restricted circle and the free throw line this series — per the NBA.com’s shot zones.
Now, he told the media after Game 4 that he wasn’t 100% from his nagging knee injury, and that has made Morant not look like himself. Minnesota has also applied pressure to make sure he isn’t nearly as effective. Those are both factors in his offensive efficiency that’s deviating from his mean.
With saying all that, Ja Morant looked like a bonafide superstar in the final 15 minutes of Game 5. His bounce and twitch going downhill looked identical to what we’ve seen all season long. He was poised for a bucket — regardless of who was in front of him, and how much pressure was applied.
While Minnesota has slowed down his scoring attack, and though Morant found his groove in Game 5, the All-Star point guard has countered their blitzing attack with his passing ability. Morant has dished out the second-most assists (52) this postseason, trailing only the “Point God” Chris Paul.
Minnesota’s aggressive defense is playing into the hands of Ja Morant’s playmaking abilities.
“If you come off a ball screen and you’re getting blitzed and there’s another body after the blitz, best thing to do is pass the ball. That’s what I’ve been doing,” Morant said. “My job is to go out there and make the best play.”
He noticed this shift in Game 3. In the first two games, they were allowing him to get downhill and take away his teammates. From then on, they’ve been throwing bodies at him to get the ball out of his hands and force other guys to beat them.
Because of this attention Morant is capturing from Minnesota’s defense, it’s opening up windows to find his teammates for easier scoring opportunities.
In the midst of these blitzes, Ja Morant has done a great job of taking advantage of the Timberwolves attention by getting his teammates involved off the weak side. One area this has stood out is through alley-oops in the halfcourt. Ziaire Williams and Brandon Clarke — the team’s two main lob threats — are sometimes positioned on the opposite (weak) side of Morant. From there, Morant hopes to lure his man and the corner defender into ball-watching, which triggers a backdoor cut for an easy alley oop at the rim.
Once Morant comes off the screen, the defense is committed here. Karl-Anthony Towns switches on him and falls into a “soft drop.” Malik Beasley is playing catch-up, but it looks as if he’s trying to get between Morant and Clarke off the roll. Since Anthony Edwards — the corner defender — is ball-watching and playing the roll, it opens up a runway for Ziaire Williams to sneak backdoor for the elevator jam.
The amount of attention here is berserk — a testament to Morant’s superstar gravity. There are 4 defenders looking at taking away a limited space. Someone’s going to be open! The team’s bounciest player is lurking on the opposite side, surging towards the launchpad when the opening presents itself.
These weak-side actions also cause the defense to scramble, as kick-out passes often lead to rotations and recoveries. That’s a focus Taylor Jenkins has emphasized to get this offense going, as it creates leaks in the defense to generate scoring opportunities through ball movement. It doesn’t even need to be 3-pointers. These shifts could create driving lanes for points in the paint.
Edwards collapses on Morant, which may not be necessary as Naz Reid is already there too, leaving his man Dillon Brooks wide open in the corner. The kick causes Patrick Beverley to scramble and rotate over to him. Brooks uses the ball fake to Bane to bait Edwards out of the low block to create a window for himself to attack the basket.
Also, can we talk about Morant’s positioning on this dish?
The way he can torque his body off of drives for buckets or passes is absolutely absurd.
What's the best way to attack a paint blitz? Having a lights-out shooter on the weak side. Desmond Bane is that guy for Memphis. He’s made 22 three’s this series, only trailing Klay Thompson for most makes this postseason, at a 46.8% clip. Not many players have taken advantage of Minnesota’s Morant swarm like Bane, as he’s shouldered a big portion of the Memphis Grizzlies offensive responsibility and burned the Wolves from 3.
These kind of sequences highlight why Ja Morant and Desmond Bane are one of the NBA’s best backcourts in just their 2nd and 3rd years. Ja Morant is a master at leveraging his paint scoring and his playmaking, while Desmond Bane is one of the league’s premier marksmen.
It’s a dynamic that’s too sweet.
When Bane is on the floor, these blitzes can be a bit perplexing. Are they really that focused on shutting down the paint that they’re willing to let an accurate 3-point sniper that open from beyond the arc?
I guess so.
Edwards and Towns look to trap Morant off the ball screen. Beverley, who was originally Bane’s man, was in help since he picked up Kyle Anderson in the dunker spot. D’Angelo Russell was at the nail staying a pass away from the ball. However, Morant launches a cross-court pass for an open Bane from downtown.
Not exactly opposite side here, but Vanderbilt picks up Morant around the free throw line. Since he’s leaving Clarke, the roller, Beverley slides over to help prevent an easy roll off the screen. In the meantime, he leaves Bane open to fire a catch-and-shoot 3.
Ja Morant has also found a great outlet for these blitzes with Brandon Clarke. Basketball News’ Nekias Duncan illustrated his impact in brilliant fashion in a recent breakdown, also highlighting how Morant and Clarke have been one of the best pick-and-roll duos this postseason. Though Clarke’s screens aren’t as sturdy as the ones Steven Adams sets — often setting ghost and slip screens — he makes up for it with his roll prowess as a bouncy big man with a feathery touch inside.
One thing that’s noticeable in these actions is how Morant finds his passing windows off the dribble. There are some where he strikes before the blitz closes more significantly, and times where you’re wondering how he fired in that amount of space. Clarke’s quick leaping ability and soft touch in this zone make these actions more potent.
All this stems from Ja Morant’s supreme confidence in his teammates. He trusts his guys to contribute to the team’s offense, and gives them the green light regardless of whether it’s a make or a miss.
“I got teammates who can make shots,” Morant said. “If they missed, then I come back down next play and if the same thing happens, I’m going to pass it again because I have the utmost confidence in those guys.”
A lot of people want to judge Ja Morant on this series for his scoring and his shooting efficiency. While this hasn’t been his best stretch of basketball, one a bit away from his All-NBA self, he’s leaving his mark on the game with his passing.
Morant is methodically dissecting the blitz defense with his wicked passing vision and creativity to get his teammates going on offense. Even though his scoring isn’t on every game, he’s putting his team in position to win games with how he’s running the offense and moving the basketball.
And for Morant, this won’t be the last time teams deploy a similar strategy in a playoff series. This series against the Minnesota Timberwolves is preparing for how he’ll be defended for a long time.
Teams know he’s a potent scorer in the paint — I mean, he led the league in points in the paint as a 6’3” guard. They also know he’s not the best shooter right now, 34.4% 3-point shooter this year. At the same time though, they know he’s a deft passer that can create passing angles out of nothing.
So teams will have a decision to make. Let him run layup lines inside, or let him find teammates for outside jumpers or easy dunks?
Pick your poison. Morant has answers ready for whatever opens up in the blitz.