Series preview: Curry, Morant ready for another playoff showdown

Ja Morant and Stephen Curry dueled in last season’s Play-In Tournament, with Morant carrying the Grizzlies past Curry’s Warriors.

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For the second consecutive year, the Golden State Warriors and the Memphis Grizzlies will face off to determine each other’s playoff fortunes. The context has changed completely, though.

The Warriors and Grizzlies squared off in last year’s NBA Play-In Tournament. While Stephen Curry and Draymond Green carried the Warriors without Klay Thompson as well as a young and unproven roster, the Grizzlies were eager to prove they should be taken seriously. A year later, the landscape has changed already between both teams as they prepare for a semifinals matchup.

The Grizzlies host the Warriors in Game 1 on Sunday (3:30 ET on ABC) as a viable championship contender. Though it took the Grizzlies six games to eliminate the seventh-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, the Grizzlies have a strong blend of young talent that possess remarkable maturity including two dynamic scorers and playmakers (Ja Morant, Desmond Bane) as well as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate (Jaren Jackson Jr .).

As for the Warriors, they have the familiar characters that helped them win three NBA titles in five Finals appearances. They have arguably the NBA’s best shooter (Steph Curry), the league’s second-best shooter (Klay Thompson), the league’s best defender when healthy (Draymond Green) and an elder statesman still eager to show his playoff value (Andre Iguodala).

Golden State’s series-clinching Game 5 win vs. Denver showed the Warriors have another gear when clutch time comes.

But they also have returned to the playoffs because they have struck a good balance between blending their championship-tested players with an otherwise young roster. Third-year-guard Jordan Poole has become the most notable character after emerging as a darkhorse Most Improved Player candidate a year after spending time in the G League.

All of which should make for a compelling series filled with twists and turns.


3 Things to Watch

1. Stephen vs. Ja

Curry and Morant will become intent on showcasing their greatness. They want to do it against each other. To be clear, Curry and Morant remain more motivated by winning. That’s what makes both the NBA’s generational talent (Curry) and the league’s rising star (Morant) so great. But expect them to try to showcase their superiority against each other.

Remember when Curry wanted to defend Morant during their first matchup last season after the two stars took veiled and playful shots at each other on social media? Or when Curry (36 points, scoreless fourth quarter) and Morant (30 points, go-ahead game-winning layup) went toe-to-toe in the Grizzlies’ 104-101 overtime win over the Warriors earlier this season?

Ja Morant and Stephen Curry went toe-to-toe in a January showdown that saw both players score 30 or more.

Expect more fireworks again. Curry has reclaimed his starting spot and looked as sharp as ever following a month-long absence with a left foot injury. He has emerged as a dependable defender. Though Morant shot only 38.6% in the Grizzlies’ first-round win over Minnesota while dealing with right knee soreness, he never tempered with his confidence and ability to make winning plays. Nothing captured that mindset more than Morant’s game-winning drive in Game 5. Expect more highlight reels to emerge and social media jabs to resurface.

Granted, Curry may not have the primary defensive assignment on Morant. Expect the Warriors to give Morant varying dosages of Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Gary Payton II. But Curry will definitely want to take on that matchup. Expect Morant to do the same.

2. Will Poole build off his early playoff success?

On a national stage, Poole showcased why the Warriors touted him all season as a Kia Most Improved Player candidate. While Curry nursed a minutes restriction from his injury, Poole started in his place and finished with the second-most points in franchise history in their first three playoff appearances (Wilt Chamberlain had 116, and Poole had 86). He also became part of a lethal small-ball lineup that both sparked interest in the group’s nickname and intrigue on the team’s shooting and quickness. Through 39 minutes and five games, the Warriors’ lineup in Curry, Poole, Thompson, Green and Wiggins produced strong ratings both on offense (141.2) and defense (119.8).

“I didn’t really come in with any expectations,” Poole said. “I didn’t know what to expect because this was my first time being here. But I definitely learned a lot. I feel like I gained a lot of knowledge within the games that we just played.”

Chasing History: The star-making emergence of Jordan Poole is helping fuel the Warriors during these playoffs.

Can Poole produce a successful yet? The third-year guard has displayed confidence throughout the playoffs and has the right humility with accepting his role. But after shooting a combined 28-for-42 in Games 1-3 against Denver, Poole shot only 3-for-10 in both Games 4 and 5. It seems inevitable that the Grizzlies will play physical against Poole just as the Nuggets eventually did . So how will Poole respond?

Poole has the luxury to lean on quality shooters (Curry, Thompson) and playmakers (Curry, Green) if he becomes a big part of the Grizzlies’ scouting report. But it will also further test if it properly adjusts. He has shown he can do that. It will just be a matter of how quickly Poole can make those tactical changes in real time.

3. Expect both the Warriors and Grizzlies to have a small lineup

The Warriors don’t have a true center as James Wiseman sat out all season with injuries. Golden State also made the philosophical decision to prioritize its positional versatility and wing presence. Besides, they have a pretty good defender who has stamped a Hall-of-Fame career by mastering all five positions.

“Draymond has the green light to basically do whatever he wants out there,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

The Warriors spent their first-round series mostly focused on Green and other teammates locking in on Nuggets center Nikola Jokic. Now that the Warriors will not have to worry about defending a top MVP candidate, they are unlikely to defend another traditional center.

The new Warriors small-ball death lineup took down the Nuggets to advance to the Western Conference semifinals.

The Grizzlies rarely played center Steven Adams after logging 24 minutes in their Game 1 loss to Minnesota. Adams missed Game 6 as he entered the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols. The Grizzlies relied on a small lineup featuring Bane, Tyus Jones, Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke to rally in Game 5. Given Memphis’ success since then, expect that strategy to stay the same.

It will be fascinating to see which team plays small ball the best. Both teams have aggressive scorers, versatile defenders and effective floor spacers. They have no need to rely on a traditional center because neither team has an elite big man that can score in bunches. They also don’t have a center that won’t be compromised with the constant ball movement and pick-and-roll plays.

Both Kerr and Memphis coach Jenkins have become creative with their rotations during the playoffs. Expect more unexpected chess moves.


Number to know

60.8% — In their first-round series win against the Denver Nuggets, the Warriors had an effective field goal percentage of 60.8%, the fourth-highest mark in a best-of-seven series in NBA history. The Warriors ranked just 16th offensively (112.1 points scored per 100 possessions) in the regular season. But they had the No. 1 offense in the first round, scoring 121.9 per 100 over their five games against Denver. That was 10.4 more per 100 than the Nuggets allowed in the regular season.

Shooting is the most important part of offense, and the Warriors ranked second in 2-point percentage (58.6%) and first in 3-point percentage (42.2%) in the first round, with three of the 14 players who shot 40% or better on at least 25 3-point attempts. Two of the three were Curry and Thompson, and the Warriors scored more than 130 points per 100 possessions in their 102 minutes on the floor together.

The Grizzlies ranked third defensively in the first round, holding the Minnesota Timberwolves to 8.0 fewer points per 100 possessions than they scored in the regular season. They also had the league’s best regular-season defense against Golden State, with the Warriors scoring just 101 per 100 over four meetings. But Curry missed the final meeting and Thompson played just 20 total minutes against Memphis. The Warriors did outscore the Grizzlies by 17 points (scoring 56 points on 45 possessions) in those 20 minutes (with Curry also on the floor for all 20).

—John Schuhman


The Pick

The Warriors and Grizzlies both have a compelling case. They have plenty of stars, plenty of depth and lots of motivation. But the Warriors have the slight edge. Technically, Golden State does not have a cleaner bill of health because of Iguodala’s injury. But Curry, Thompson and Green don’t appear to have any health issues anymore, while Morant has dealt with right knee soreness during the playoffs. With the Warriors’ main stars healthy and playing at their best, that will give them some extra wiggle room in a competitive playoff series. Warriors in 7.

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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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