The Whiteboard: Can the Warriors keep Ja Morant from scoring in the paint?

Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies

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The second round of the playoffs kicked off Sunday with the Bucks dominating the Celtics and the Warriors barely eking out a victory over the Grizzlies in their respective Games 1s. One was a defensive slugfest, the other a high-scoring track meet but in both cases, scoring and defending in the paint turned out to be the difference.

Can the Warriors keep Ja Morant away from the rim?

Ja Morant had an absolutely fantastic Game 1 against the Golden State Warriors, finishing with 34 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds and doing essentially everything except make the game-winning layup. However, the Warriors’ defense was able to make things extremely difficult for him, in ways that aren’t necessarily reflected in his stat line, even if you focus in on the fact that it took him 31 shots to score 34 points.

Morant was one of the most prolific drivers during the regular season, averaging 20.9 drives per game (third-most in the league) and passing on just 28.5 percent of those drives (fourth-lowest among the 53 players who averaged at least 10 drives per game). He also drew fouls at an extremely high rate and 63 percent of his drives produced a shot attempt or a trip to the free-throw line.

In Game 1, he finished with 24 drives but just 54 percent produced a shot attempt or a trip to the free-throw line. That’s a slight decline but it looks even more significant when you consider that he also attempted 10 pull-up jumpers — possessions where he either couldn’t get all the way to the rim or decided his scoring odds were better by not attacking. That’s a ratio of 0.83 pull-up jumpers for each shot attempt off a drive, a huge increase from his 0.55 ratio during the regular season.

Defensive responsibility for Morant was fairly evenly divided between Andrew Wiggins, Klay Thompson and Gary Payton II but the team also did an excellent job bringing extra defenders to wall off the paint without leaving shooters unchallenged on the perimeter.

Ja Morant is now at a level where simply raising the level of difficulty for him as he gets his points is more plausible than actually shutting him down. The Warriors were able to do that just enough in Game 1 and, with four quarters of Draymond Green next time out, might have found a workable formula to get past the upstart Grizzlies.

The Milwaukee Bucks’ defense absolutely swallowed the Boston Celtics

While the Warriors found an edge by slightly limiting the effectiveness of Ja Morant on the drive, the Bucks absolutely smothered the Celtics. Boston finished Game 1 with 48 drives, on which they shot 1-of-15 with more turnovers (5) than assists (4) or shooting fouls drawn (4). Giannis Antetokounmpo was all over the baseline and finished with more than one highlight block on Jayson Tatum.

But he wasn’t the only one — Brook Lopez finished with three blocks and a half-dozen other strong challenges.

What was most striking was how often the Celtics just drove right into the Bucks’ rim protection without any sort of counter (for example, going one-on-three here and missing a wide-open Derrick White at the 3-point line).

They were certainly victims of some bad luck, with several bad bounces robbing them of tough layups, and they did create a ton of open 3-pointers with their ball movement. But unless they figure out a strategy for moving Milwaukee’s rim protectors further away from the basket they’re going to need to win by shooting over the defense.

Other NBA stories:

The Boston Celtics do not have an answer for Giannis Antetokounmpo. (No one else does either).

The Sacramento Kings have reportedly narrowed their head-coaching candidates to Mike Brown, Steve Clifford and Mark Jackson. YUCK.

Dr. J’s picked his five greatest basketball players of all time. No Michael Jordan. No LeBron James. No Kareem. No Magic. No Bird. No sense.

Joel Embiid’s injury means the Philadelphia 76ers are going to have to rely a lot on James Harden. Based on how he’s looked this postseason, that’s a scary proposition.

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