Ja Morant stood on the opponent’s side of the court by himself as the memphis grizzlies were set to inbound the ball with 3.6 seconds left. Golden State Warriors guard Gary Payton II was his assigned defender. Payton stood near the Grizzlies 3-point line before looking at the Warriors’ bench and then running up to faceguard Morant before the pass.
Morant took off past Payton and was met at the rim while he tried to squeeze a left-handed layup past Klay Thompson as the buzzer sounded. I missed, and the Warriors took Game 1 of the second-round NBA playoff series 117-116 on Sunday at FedExForum.
“I was actually beat to the play,” Payton said. “Thank God Klay Thompson sniffed it out. He had my back and just tried to make it difficult for him at the end to make a tough shot, and he missed it.”
It was a play that Morant has converted multiple times. He did so against the Phoenix Suns in a December win and last series against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Each time Morant was bounded by the ball, he got downhill and made a layup through traffic.
Morant said it was the same message the Grizzlies have had each time in that situation. In the past, he’s described that message as, “get a bucket, Ja.”
“I just missed a layup,” Morant said.
“He had a great look,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “It just didn’t happen to go in.”
The frequency of that call is also why, as they Warriors put it, they were waiting on it.
“We’ve seen it,” Payton said. “He’s made that shot multiple times. Just trying to disrupt it. And Klay did what he needed to do to disrupt it.”
“We knew they were going to try and get him to go downhill; we had seen that a couple of times,” Warriors guard Jordan Poole said. “Gary Payton II, Klay Thompson, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Otto Porter did a really good job.”
It appeared that Thompson used his 6-foot-6 frame to disrupt and make Morant’s layup difficult, even though Morant denied after the game that Thompson’s contest had any impact on the shot.
Against the Suns, Morant finished that shot over Devin Booker and defensive player of the year runner-up, Mikal Bridges. He was met at the rim by the 6-9 Jared Vanderbilt when he made the shot in Game 5 of the first round.
That’s why during the timeout, Warriors player development coach Jacob Rubin alerted Thompson that the play was coming.
“Obviously I thought he was going to attack, and I did not think Brandon Clarke was going to be the one that shot the last shot,” Thompson said. “I just knew it was going to go to the best player. He’s an incredible player in the key, and I just tried to cut him off from getting an open layup and forced him to make a tough shot.”
A lot of attention was put on Morant throughout the game. The Warriors started Payton so he could be Morant’s primary defensive matchup. They also emphasized giving Morant space at the 3-point line and taking away his driving lanes.
Morant scored 34 points on 14-for-31 shooting and made 4 of 11 3-pointers.
The Grizzlies didn’t get their typical production from many of their impact players. Desmond Bane and Dillon Brooks both averaged more than 18 points in the regular season but neither scored in double figures on Sunday.
Those numbers in part are why there wasn’t panic from the Grizzlies after the Game 1 loss. After all, in the last two Grizzlies playoffs series, the team that won Game 1 lost the series. The Grizzlies won Game 1 last season against the Utah Jazz before losing the series 4-1, and they won a series 4-2 against the Timberwolves after losing the first game.
“Super proud of our guys,” Jenkins said. “The effort that they gave tonight was phenomenal. There’s definitely some mental lapses that we had. We’ll easily clean that stuff up, watch the film tomorrow. Just got to recover, recuperate, get ready for tomorrow to be a big day to clean stuff up, and then get ready for Tuesday’s game.”