Warriors’ biggest threat against Grizzlies

Talented Ja Morant will be tough to guard, but Gary Payton II offers best hope

By John Krolik

Special to The Examiner

The playoff series between the Warriors and Grizzlies is far from over. However, we already have gotten a pretty good idea of what the keys to the series will be for the Warriors if they want to advance to the Western Conference Finals.

Warriors fans have been all too familiar with the work of Ja Morant for some time now. After all, it was Morant who eliminated the Warriors from last year’s play-in tournament with a 35-point masterpiece of a performance. Morant is an absolute nightmare to guard. He’s lightning-quick, has great touch with layups and floaters when he gets to the paint and is deceptively powerful for his listed height and weight of 6’3”, 173 pounds. Oh, and he has turned into the NBA’s most consistently spectacular in-game dunker. His jumper is subpar for a guard, but he is fearless, relentless and has become a true superstar in the third season of his career.

Steve Kerr needs to have someone on the floor capable of providing Morant with resistance, which is why this will be one of the biggest series of Gary Payton II’s life. Steph Curry has been getting targeted on switches in the playoffs for years now. As gifted as Curry is, he’s simply not big, fast or strong enough to keep Morant from getting where he wants to.

In previous seasons, the solution would be to cross-match and put Klay Thompson on whatever backcourt star Curry would have trouble guarding. Unfortunately, things are no longer that simple. Asking a player who has gone through two major lower body surgeries in the last three seasons to stay in front of perhaps the league’s fastest player is simply too much. And as incredible as Jordan Poole has become offensively, his defense remains something of a weak spot.

Enter Payton. The son of the league’s 1996 defensive player of the year isn’t quite as athletic as Morant, simply because no guard in the league is, but he’s definitely comfortable above the rim. At 6’3 and 184 pounds of pure muscle, Payton has the strength to body up the Grizzlies star. Furthermore, Payton’s 6’8 wingspan allows him to bother shots and get some free swipes in if Morant gets careless with his dribble. He has quick feet and a motor that doesn’t stop, which allows the Warriors to go ultra-small without getting destroyed on the boards.

Payton isn’t just a defensive specialist. He combines his athleticism and length with a sixth sense for when to cut to the basket for an easy hoop. That allowed him to shoot 61.6% from the field this season, which is absolutely off the charts for a guard. He’s also become a good enough spot-up shooter that defenses can’t cheat off of him when he’s on the perimeter.

On top of all that, Payton might have a little extra motivation. He made $1.7 million this season, and is set to become an unrestricted free agent when the playoffs end. The list of deep-pocketed teams who would like an elite defensive guard who also happens to be hyper-efficient on offense and a solid three-point shooter is long. It’s not hard to imagine Payton getting a serious payday if he impresses during these playoffs, particularly against Morant. (In fact, he might very well play himself off the Warriors, who had the league’s highest payroll this season. But that’s a worry for another time.)

Payton and the other Warriors shouldn’t be expected to shut down Morant, but what they can do is make him work for his points. If Morant is forced to become a volume shooter, especially from the perimeter, instead of being allowed to live in the paint and set up his teammates, the Warriors defense will have done its job.

The other key player to watch is Poole. It’s clear by now that his late-season breakout was anything but a fluke. Almost overnight, the third-year pro has become a key factor in determining how far the Warriors will go in these playoffs. At the risk of minor blasphemy, Poole is playing the role Kevin Durant played during his time with the Warriors.

Poole spends his fair share of time as a primary option and gets a healthy amount of plays called for him. However, where he becomes extra valuable is when the Warriors’ primary action fails to generate a clean look or the team’s long-distance shooters find themselves mired in a slump. That’s where Poole’s ability to put the ball on the floor, shoot from distance and essentially be a dynamic offense unto himself makes the Warriors truly scary.

Poole essentially gives the Warriors a second chance to get a good look on every single possession, just like Durant did. On top of that, Poole has absolutely no fear of the moment. It’s clear the Warriors have something special on their hands here. (Bonus: the Warriors have him under contract for just $3.9 million next season before he becomes a restricted free agent in the summer of 2023.)

That’s what to look for: The battle between Morant and Payton (as well as the rest of the Warriors’ defense), the ability of the Warriors to stay small to accommodate Payton’s minutes while still competing on the boards and whether Poole can keep giving the Warrior offense a gigantic extra boost. If it all comes together, expect to see the Warriors back in the Western Conference Finals.

John Krolik is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.

Jordan Poole (3) has been a huge factor for the Warriors down the stretch this season. (Christopher Victorio/Special to The Examiner)

Jordan Poole (3) has been a huge factor for the Warriors down the stretch this season. (Christopher Victorio/Special to The Examiner)

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