As the legendary Dan Patrick often said on SportsCenter, “You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him.” The Minnesota Timberwolves have adopted the Bill Belichick approach to the playoffs of trying to take away the opponent’s best player, Ja Morant. Completely negating the Memphis Grizzlies’ young superstar is a foolish endeavor, but the Timberwolves are certainly making things difficult.
I know that last sentence may feel like a reach as the third-year guard has multiple 30-point games and is seemingly getting to the line at will, but nothing has been easy for Morant. After opening the series with a 32 point outing with 20 free throw attempts, Morant’s total points declined by the game to 23, 16, and 11. In game five, Morant rediscovered his scoring touch as he recorded 30 points with 17 free throw attempts, but entering the fourth quarter he only had 12 points on 5-13 shooting from the floor and 2-7 from the line. Overall, Morant is averaging 22.4 points on 40/27/70 shooting splits. A rather steep decline from his regular season average of 27.4 points on 49/34/76 shooting splits.
Morant’s postseason labors have led some to suggest that Morant isn’t healthy. That may be a contributing factor, but we also need to credit how the Timberwolves are approaching the matchup. The Timberwolves’ new defensive scheme of keeping the big at the level of the screen has been well covered all season, but it has given Morant some issues as he has periodically struggled with the additional length and athleticism, which we can see in his turnover numbers.
In the regular season, Morant averaged 3.4 turnovers per game. That number has risen to 4.0 in the playoffs. While this isn’t a monumental increase in turnovers, it can be directly linked to Morant’s pick-and-roll play as his turnover frequency in this set has risen from 13.7% to 16.7%, per NBA Stats. Morant has a tendency to leave his feet and get careless with his passes when pressured in the pick-and-roll, which the Timberwolves are capitalizing on.
Unfortunately, that’s almost the only success the Timberwolves can boast about in terms of defending Morant in the pick-and-roll. Compared to the regular season, Morant is scoring the exact same amount of points-per-possession (PPP) as the pick-and-roll ball-handler at 0.92 with an almost identical field goal percentage.
Besides introducing a bit of chaos to the equation, the Timberwolves’ scheme of playing at the level spawns two issues. First, proper ball movement can typically find an open shooter if every necessary rotation isn’t made. Second, by extending the center that far out, offensive rebounds become more commonplace. Both of these issues are proving to be potentially insurmountable for the Timberwolves.
The Timberwolves’ bet that the “others” won’t beat them isn’t currently paying off as Desmond Bane is playing like a superstar. After averaging 18.2 points on 46/44/90 shooting splits in the regular season, Bane is currently averaging 23.6 points on 48/47/90 splits. When the ball is swung to him, he’s either knocking down every jumper he takes, finishing at the rim, or making the proper decision. On top of that, Bane is playing stellar defense as the Grizzlies’ defensive rating with Bane on the court is 19.6 lower than when he’s off, per Cleaning the Glass. Overall, the Grizzlies’ have a net rating that is 34.3 points higher with Bane on the court than when he is off. In the regular season, this number was plus-1.8.
Besides being singlehandedly dismantled by Bane, the Timberwolves’ defensive scheme creates numerous offensive rebounding opportunities. This was something they struggled with all season, but allowing 11.8 offensive rebounds per game allows players like Brandon Clarke (I like Clarke, so this isn’t a slight on him) to have an on/off net rating differential of plus-12.8 which is unsustainable. Clarke was plus-0.8 in the regular season.
Pressuring Morant is a smart move to slow him down and wear him out, but it is a bet that the “others” won’t beat you, which so far, they are. However, while Morant hasn’t experienced a drastic drop off in production out of the pick-and-roll, his scoring efficiency has plummeted since the regular season.
In the regular season, Morant had an effective field goal percentage of 53, shot 66 percent at the rim, 41 percent in the mid-range, and 34 percent from three. In the playoffs, these numbers have dropped to 42.5, 48, 35, and 27 percent respectively. For a player of Morant’s stature, those are horrid efficiency numbers.
When Morant does take a shot, the Timberwolves are doing a brilliant job of contesting and being physical with him at the rim. Unfortunately, Morant is getting to the rim at will. Currently, 58 percent of his shots are coming at the rim (most in the league), which is up from 43 percent in the regular season. When Morant gets a shot off, the Timberwolves are frequently making him miss, but they are also fouling him at an astronomical rate. In the regular season, Morant drew a shooting foul on 13.7 percent of his shots (85th percentile). This series, there is a foul called on 20.6 percent of Morant’s shots, the highest rate in the league.
Feel free to take a second to scream into your pillow if you need. I’ll still be here.
Put aside any referee squabbles you may have. There have been plenty of awful calls to go around this series, but the Timberwolves aren’t doing themselves any favors by allowing Morant to get to the rim whenever he wants.
Despite his herculean effort in game five, Morant doesn’t appear to be 100 percent healthy. The Timberwolves’ approach to defending him has forced him to exert a tremendous amount of energy on possibly a bum leg. By no means is this a plea to injure the guy, but if he’s on the court then he can be attacked. Morant isn’t a good defender to begin with, but he’s even worse when hobbled. The Timberwolves have proven they can touch the paint whenever they want when Morant is defending the ball, but too frequently they don’t hunt this switch. To help slow him down on offense, the Timberwolves have to keep attacking him when he’s on defense.
Completely overhauling the defensive scheme at this point feels excessive but playing at the level on every possession can’t be the answer. We all know the pitfalls that drop coverage has presented in the past, but it might be a worthwhile counter to shore up the defensive rebounding and limit the off-ball scoring.
Despite being down 3-2 in the series, the Timberwolves’ approach to containing Morant has relatively worked as his scoring efficiency has plummeted. If not for a total of 37 free throw attempts in Morant’s two highest scoring games, this series would look significantly different. Game Six likely won’t see major changes to the defensive approach as they’ve been within two monster collapses of already closing out the series. Expect the Timberwolves to remain physical with Morant at the rim and swarm him with length on the perimeter. If they want to win, though, their rotations and rebounding effort must be perfect from start to finish, not just through the third quarter.