The first weekend of the 2021 NBA Playoffs is in the books, and we saw a number of Game 1 upsets. None was bigger than the Memphis Grizzlies’ 112-109 win on the road over the Utah Jazz. After battling through the play-in tournament, the Grizzlies now have a 1-0 lead on the team that finished the regular season with the best record in the league.
Dillon Brooks went for 31 points to nearly match his career-high, while Ja Morant kept up his strong play to finish with 26 of his own in the first official playoff game for both youngsters. The Grizzlies were certainly helped by the fact that Donovan Mitchell sat out due to an ankle injury, Rudy Gobert fouled out in the fourth quarter and the Jazz shot just 12-for-47 from 3-point land. But while they may have had some things go their way, they absolutely earned this victory with some tough and confident play on both ends of the floor.
In particular, they called the Jazz’s bluff in the pick-and-roll and made them pay over and over again, especially in the second half, for keeping the big at home in drop coverage. Morant and Brooks led the way, putting on a masterclass in PNR finishing as they shot a combined 57.6 percent inside the arc in the second half. The Jazz simply had no answers for their wide array of mid-range jumpers, floaters and crafty finishes around the rim.
Utah’s whole game plan defensively is to have their big, namely, Rudy Gobert, sit back and protect the rim. Given his size and skill set, it’s a wise strategy, and you can’t argue with the results. They finished with the third-best defensive rating (107.5), had the second-best opponent field goal percentage (44.7) and of course earned homecourt throughout the playoffs by finishing a league-best 52-20.
The whole idea of drop coverage is that layups and dunks are the easiest shots in the game, and by taking them away you make your opponent take longer and more inefficient shots, especially if you can corral them into the mid-range. But while it works over the course of the season, it’s not a perfect defensive system. We’ve seen elite off-the-dribble shooters like Steph Curry and Damian Lillard torch teams by walking into 3-pointers with the big sitting back in the paint. In Game 1, Morant and Brooks picked it apart by operating a little closer to the basket.
Both players showed a lot of craft with how they used their bodies to create space and allow themselves to play at their own pace. One reason drop coverage can be tricky to score against is that you come off the screen and have all this space in front of you, but your defender is closing fast from behind, and the big is sitting at the rim ready to jump out and contest. That can make it easy to rush or just take a difficult shot on the run.
Morant and Brooks showed the perfect counter. Here’s Morant in the first half. He delays coming off the screen and then snakes back to the middle of the court to keep Joe Ingles on his back and out of the play. By now, Jonas Valanciunas has rolled to the rim, and he seals off Gobert to give Morant an easy layup.
Here’s Brooks in the third quarter using the same tactic but for a different result. He stops short off of the screen, bumps Georges Niang to get him off balance, and then steps back into the wide-open space in the mid-range.
Of course, sometimes you have to just take the runner that the defense gives you, and both players made some of those too — as did other Grizzlies.
But what really separates Morant is that he has the athleticism to get to the rim and finish even when that’s the one thing the defense is specifically trying to prevent. Down the stretch, he made a couple of incredible plays that few in the league could replicate. Most notably, he went behind his back to shed Mike Conley, then took off from the dotted circle and soared all the way to the rim for a scoop layup. Gobert was there, but Morant beat him to the rim with his quickness.
This was an incredible performance by the Grizzlies, but as you may have noticed, a lot of these clips featured really tough buckets. Given their success with this defensive scheme all season long, the Jazz will likely let them have most of those looks in Game 2, and dare the Grizzlies to beat them again.
Now, the questions become, one, can the Grizzlies do just that, and two, what adjustments will the Jazz make if they do? The Grizzlies won round one, and now the real fun begins.