Playoff spotlight: Jordan Poole’s defense is under the microscope for the Warriors

Did you see what happened in Phoenix on Wednesday night? the Sun’s spent much of the game dragging Luka Doncić into high-screen action, forcing a switch and attacking who they perceive as Dallas’ weakest defender. Miami did it to Bring Young in the first round. the Warriorsout in space, did it to Nikola Jockic over the course of that Denver series.

“The league has become a ‘pick on’ league,” Steve Kerr said. “You run a lot of ball screens, bring a certain guy in (and target them).”

Ja Morant and the grizzlies made their declaration in Memphis. They prefer to hunt jordan poole. This 10-second clip reveals it clearly. Steph Curry and Kevin Looney are on the court. Klay Thompson is on Brandon Clark. Clarke comes up for a high screen. But Morant waves him away. He doesn’t want Thompson. Of all the available options, he prefers to go to Poole.

That was in the crunchtime of Game 1. It was one of the rare possessions where Poole opened on Morant. Typically it’ll be Andrew Wiggins as his primary defend, especially with Gary Payton II no longer an option.

But the Warriors have mostly deployed a switching scheme. That gives an isolating offensive player his choice. Poole, as has been established, is Morant’s preferred target. So here Morant is in the crunchtime of Game 2, pulling him up, sending Wiggins away and beating Poole off the dribble.

This is the next stage of Poole’s ascension. He has become such a polished, productive offensive playmaker in his third season that Steve Kerr can no longer pick and choose which of Poole’s flaws will keep him off the floor. He must play or else the Warriors’ offensive ceiling is lowered significantly. That’s why he’s currently at 33.3 minutes per game in these playoffs, second most on the team.

Payton’s injury strips away Kerr’s security blanket in closing time. He closed with Payton over Poole in Game 5 of the Denver series and probably would’ve while Morant was cooking the Warriors the other night, but Payton’s elbow is broken, his arm is in a brace and he’s out for the next month.

It’s Poole or else. looney and Draymond Green haven’t played a minute together in this Memphis series. The Warriors have purposefully separated them for spacing purposes. Maybe you’ll see an Otto Porter Jr. or to Jonathan Kuminga. But the Warriors must score better to advance beyond Memphis. They have an ugly 106.3 offensive rating in the first two games. Pulling Poole off the floor only handcuffs them more.

So it’s on Poole to survive better against a targeted onslaught and the coaching staff to scheme up a better plan against Morant, mixing up pitches. They’ve sprinkled in a few adjustments that could be used more often as the series shifts to San Francisco. Kerr was asked about sending double-teams in Morant’s direction.

“It’s definitely an option,” Kerr said. “As you go during a series, you have to be flexible. You’ve gotta be willing to adjust. If we adjust, that’s a possibility. How would we double? Where would we come from? What would we be willing to give up? It’s all on the menu.”

The Warriors did double Morant on a third-quarter possession in Game 2. Poole was guarding rookie Zaire Williams. Morant called Williams up to get a screen and expected a switch. Had the Warriors been playing Morant traditionally, Wiggins would’ve gone with Williams, and Poole would’ve laid below the 3-point line and given Morant the 3 to protect on the drive.

But Poole instead aggressively blitzed way past the line and Wiggins stuck around for a trap and double-team that sent a surprised Morant sprawling back near half court. It nearly led to a turnover. But Morant was able to get a panicked pass out of his hands from him and the ball found its way to the open Williams, who knocked down one of his four 3s from him.

Williams made only 31.4 percent of his 3s in his rookie season. He stung the Warriors in Game 2, but the percentages indicate that it’d be unlikely for him to duplicate it, especially on the road in a hostile playoff environment. So I’d expect an increased number of selective double-teams of Morant, helping off Williams and Kyle Anderson.

But the playoff history of Kerr’s staff suggests they won’t go overboard to regularly force the ball out of Morant’s hands. Memphis scored only 106 points Tuesday night. That should be enough for the Warriors to win. Offense — 101 points, 18 turnovers, 7-of-38 from 3 — was their bigger problem, not Morant’s 47.

But even without sending an extra body and compromising the integrity of the defense on the back end, there are ways to avoid a relentless targeting of a preferred player. The Warriors are experienced at this. Steph Curry has spent plenty of playoff series getting earmarked and became an expert at scram switching off the ball so he wasn’t on the screener.

Poole tried it initially on a crucial possession in Game 2. With three minutes left, Morant again was calling Poole’s man up to screen Wiggins. But look carefully at Poole and Thompson near the left corner in the beginning of the clip. Poole is trying to get Thompson to switch onto De’Anthony Melton away from the ball so it would become Thompson on Morant, not Poole. But Thompson doesn’t see it and react in time, so it’s Poole forced into the action again.

Draymond Green flies over from the help side for the verticality contest and stop. The Warriors need him to rev the engines at home. Because of an ejection and elbow to the eye, Green was not his usually impactful self in Memphis. A better Green can always erase more of the Warriors’ defensive issues.

But even the recognition and scram switch attempt from Poole in that clip is a positive sign. Thompson is the one who was slow to react. Poole is 6-foot-4, has grown stronger and has quick hands and a sharp brain. There are plenty of people within the organization who believe he can become at least an average defender, considering his size, tools and commitment level of him this season. Chris DeMarco, the assistant who works closest with Poole, used to show him clips of GaryHarris and Avery Bradley defending as an outline of a like-sized, mid-prime example.

“There’s been some growth in his ability to defend without fouling,” Kerr said Thursday. “He took a step backwards the other night. He got his fifth foul with 10 minutes left on a reach. He has to trust the defense behind him. Show your hands. Don’t swipe down. He had some really good games against Denver.”

Several people around the Warriors have mentioned that Nuggets series as positive defensive growth from Poole. He was active all series and even came up with some highlight stops, like this one against Bones-Hyland. Hyland isn’t Morant, but the principles used against him are similar. On this sequence, Poole shaded him the proper direction, didn’t reach and took a straight-on charge.

Poole won’t be able to hide against the Grizzlies. In 2022, not NBA player can hide on defense in the playoffs. The Warriors can rearrange schemes to help him, but Memphis will draw Poole into the action and, if the Warriors advance, Phoenix might even be more ruthless. The spotlight is on Poole’s defense for the next few weeks.

(Photo of Jordan Poole, Ja Morant and Steph Curry: Petre Thomas / USA Today)


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