10:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Warriors -10, Over/Under: 224.5
A pivotal chapter in this Western Conference Semifinal is on tap tonight out West, as the Golden State Warriors look to take a commanding 3-1 lead against the potentially shorthanded Memphis Grizzlies in Game Four of this series from Chase Center in San Francsico, California. As entertaining as these playoffs have been thus far, they’ve unfortunately been littered with injuries to star players, with the Grizzlies (56-26, 2nd in Western Conference) the latest team to take a hit in the form of a knee malady to (newly-minted Most Improved Player) Ja Morant (27.4 PTS, 49.3% FG, 34.4% 3FG, 76.1% FT, 5.7 REB, 6.7 AST, 1.2 STL, 24.4 PER). Indeed, the first-time All-Star Guard engaged in a proverbial tug of war with the Warriors’ Jordan Poole (more on him shortly), resulting in the latter “pulling” on Morant’s left knee, causing him to leave the hardwood with a noticeable limp. Granted, this controversial turn of events occurred at the 6:19 mark of the fourth quarter mark with Memphis trailing by seventeen points, so this could be a situation in which (Head Coach) Taylor Jenkins ultimately decided to cut his losses and look ahead to Game Four. However, the 37-year-old stated on Sunday that Morant was still going through the evaluation process but wasn’t expecting him to participate in tonight’s affair. Of course, this was just the latest shot fired in what has been nothing short of a chippy encounter between two sides that are developing an unhealthy dislike for each other; in Game One, Golden State’s Draymond Green was ejected for a Flagrant-2 after pulling (young Forward) Brandon Clarke (10.4 PTS, 64.4% FG, 22.7% 3FG, 65.4% FT, 5.3 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.1 BLK, 23.7 PER) down from midair by his jersey, only for (bullish Guard) Dillon Brooks (18.4 PTS, 43.2% FG, 30.9% 3FG, 84.9% FT, 3.2 REB, 2.8 AST, 1.1 STL, 15.5 PER) to retaliate with a wild swinging forearm to the head of Gary Payton II on a clear path layup early in Game Two, resulting in a one-game suspension. Morant addressed this latest altercation after the 142-112 thumping on Saturday night, taking to social media and stating that Poole “broke the code”, echoing the comments that (Dubs’ Coach) Steve Kerr made following Brooks’ ejection in Game Two. Ultimately, the NBA ruled that the play was neither egregious nor malicious, pouring more salt on what has to be an open wound for the Grizz. With that said, this is a team that now faces a pivotal point in what has been their longest postseason run in seven years, and they may need to do it without the league’s breakout player of the season; Morant absolutely leveled up in this, his third year in the Association, posting career-highs in a slew of categories including points (27.4), field goal percentage (49.3%), three-point percentage (34.4%), two-point percentage (53.4%), rebounds (5.7), steals (1.2), and PER (24.4). One of the very best finishers in the game today, Morant has the electrifying quick step to routinely blow by defenders and the attitude and fearlessness to finish at the rim, evidenced by the fact that he became the first Guard in NBA history to lead the league in points in the paint. He’s averaged a whopping 38.3 points on 50.6% shooting from the field, along with 6.7 rebounds, 8.3 assists, and 3.0 steals through the first three games of the series, including a robust FORTY-SEVEN points and the go-ahead layup in Game Two (106-101). With that said, there is tepid optimism that Memphis can survive without their explosive floor general, for after all they’ve done so with aplomb whenever he’s been out this season; Jenkins’ charges were a surprising 20-5 in his absence, thanks in large part to a wealth of internal growth throughout the roster. (Versatile Forward) Jaren Jackson Jr. (16.3 PTS, 41.5% FG, 31.9% 3FG, 82.3% FT, 5.8 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 2.3 BLK, 17.0 PER) has finally begun to deliver on his enormous two-way potential, while (sharpshooting Guard) Desmond Bane (18.2 PTS, 46.1% FG, 43.6% 3FG, 90.3% FT, 4.4 REB, 2.7 AST, 1.2 STL, 17.6 PER) has offered crucial spacing from the perimeter, along with the aforementioned Brooks and Clarke, who have thrived within the collegiate-like atmosphere that Jenkins has fostered during his time with the franchise. With or without Ja, these are the guys who will need to step up to square this series away at two games apiece, particularly after Saturday’s drubbing in San Francisco. Though the visitors started well enough, leading by as many as thirteen points in the first quarter, the contest quickly unraveled from there as the hosts outscored them 75-52 between the second and third periods; Memphis shot just 41.6% from the field during that stretch, including 7-of-22 from beyond the arc (31.8%), while getting bested by ten points from the charity stripe. In the end, the visiting side shot 43.5% overall and a solid 16-of-43 from three (37.2%) but were absolutely battered in the paint (-18), and once again hammered on the glass (-9), increasing that 17-board deficit in the series. Needless to say, this has been a disappointing showing from the top rebounding side in the NBA (49.2). Prior to leaving with said injury, Morant had totaled thirty-four points on 13-of-21 shooting (61.9%), including 4-of-7 from the perimeter (57.1%), along with three rebounds, seven assists, and three steals. Bane, who struggled mightily in the previous two games, turned in a better performance with sixteen points on 5-of-10 shooting (50.0%) and 4-of-7 from three (57.1%), though more will be needed from Jackson who after erupting for thirty-three points in Game One, could muster just twelve before fouling out in Game Two, before posting fifteen points on a dismal 4-of-13 shooting (30.8%) in Game Three. Clarke could offer no more than four points and a pair of boards in just over sixteen minutes off the bench, though (backup Guard) De’Anthony Melton (10.8 PTS, 40.4% FG, 37.4% 3FG, 75.0% FT, 4.5 REB, 2.7 AST, 1.4 STL 0.5 BLK, 15.2 PER) did finish with twelve points, four rebounds and three dimes. However, as that score clearly indicated, the Grizzlies need much more than that, particularly as they face the growing likelihood of returning to FedEx Forum trailing 1-3. As improved as this team was this season (improving by EIGHTEEN games), there was concern that their youth and inexperience would be a detriment in the playoffs, and that is proving the be true against an opponent that possesses experience and ruthlessness in spades. While we have a sneaky suspicion that Morant will indeed tough it out tonight, it won’t matter if he doesn’t receive more production from the supporting cast, though they will be getting Brooks back from that aforementioned suspension, so they shouldn’t be lacking in attitude.
Meanwhile, we’d forgive you if you happened to write off the Warriors (53-29, 3rd in Western Conference) as legitimate contenders based off of their last two campaigns, but if we’ve learned anything from the postseason thus far, it’s that this team has indeed returned to their place among the NBA’s elite. After missing the postseason in each of the last two years thanks to significant injuries to foundational players, Golden State entered this season with a sense of confidence in themselves not seen since they advanced to FIVE consecutive NBA Finals from 2015 to 2019, capturing three Larry O’Brien trophies along the way. Indeed, (Head Coach) Steve Kerr’s charges got off to a torrid 29-7 start, before finally welcoming back (All-Star sharpshooter) Klay Thompson (20.4 PTS, 42.9% FG, 38.5% 3FG, 90.2% FT, 3.9 REB, 2.8 AST, 0.5 STL, 16.7 PER) following a two-year hiatus rehabbing from successive injuries to his ACL and Achilles. However, as soon as the two-time All-NBA selection returned, (versatile Forward) Draymond Green (7.5 PTS, 52.5% FG, 29.6% 3FG, 65.9% FT, 7.3 REB, 7.0 AST, 11.3 STL, 1.1 BLK, 14.3 PER) went down with a back injury that would cost him TWENTY-NINE straight games. And if that wasn’t enough, a late foot injury to (reigning scoring champion) Steph Curry (25.5 PTS, 43.7% FG, 38.0% 3FG, 92.3% FT, 5.2 REB, 6.3 AST, 1.3 STL, 21.4 PER) meant that the Warriors’ big three only started ONE game together all season, which is nothing short of remarkable. As a result, they treaded water over the second half of the season, posting a 24-22 record post-January 5th, ultimately settling into the Third Seed out West. Granted, after everything that had happened in the previous two campaigns, Kerr was taking ZERO chances in making sure that his troops were completely healthy for the playoffs, and it appears that the 56-year-old was absolutely correct in his tactics, for the Warriors have looked nothing short of impressive to this point. After disposing of the Nuggets with relative ease in the First Round, this series with the Grizzlies shaped up to be an intriguing contrast in cultures: the battle-hardened veterans who have seen everything there is to see, versus the wide-eyed, upstart punks who were looking to make a name for themselves. And so, the first two games played out in the most entertaining of manners; Games One (117-116) and Two (106-101) were decided by a combined SIX points, littered with a wealth of highlights, daggers, and drama, along with those two aforementioned ejections and a lot of bad blood. Now, in this case, conventional wisdom would argue that this kind of affair favors the more experienced group that can keep a level head and maintain their focus, which certainly appeared to be the case in Saturday night’s 142-112 blowout at Chase Center. As we covered earlier, the hosts grew into this contest, trailing by as many as thirteen points in the first period before going on a 25-14 run immediately after halftime, before finishing a third quarter in which they bested the visitors 37-23. Kerr’s troops shot 56.5% from the field in this stanza, including 4-of-9 from beyond the arc (44.4%), as the triumvirate of Curry, Thompson, and Poole accounted for a combined twenty-six points on 8-of-16 shooting (50.0%). In the end, this was the first game of this series in which Golden State truly EXPLODED on the offensive end of the court, netting a staggering 63.1% of their attempts from the field, including 17-of-32 from downtown (53.1%), along with a healthy thirty-four assists. Curry led the way with thirty points on an efficient 7-of-14 shooting (50.0%), with nearly half of his production coming from the charity stripe (14-of-14 FT), while Poole wasn’t far behind with twenty-seven points on 11-of-17 shooting (64.7%) in just over thirty-one minutes off the bench. Thompson added twenty-one points on 8-of-13 shooting (61.5%), including 4-of-6 from three (66.7%), along with nine rebounds and four assists, while various members from the supporting cast stepped up; (former No. One Overall Pick) Andrew Wiggins (17.2 PTS, 46.6% FG, 39.3% 3FG, 63.4% FT, 4.5 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.7 BLK, 15.0 PER) totaled seventeen points on a stellar 7-of-10 shooting (70.0%), while (Rookie Forward) Jonathan Kuminga (9.3 PTS, 51.3% FG, 33.6% 3FG, 68.4% FT, 3.3 REB, 0.9 AST, 15.2 PER) continues to find his postseason legs with eighteen of his own on 8-of-10 shooting (80.0%), as (veteran Forward) Otto Porter Jr. (8.2 PTS, 46.4% FG, 37.0% 3FG, 80.3% FT, 5.7 REB, 1.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.5 BLK, 15.9 PER) chipped in with another thirteen points off the bench. Essentially, the Dubs received the performance from their supporting cast that their opponent has been dying for, further playing into lopsided outcome. This is going to be particularly crucial moving forward, because Kerr’s depth was a concern after Games One and Two, as (veteran Swingman) Andre Iguodala (4.0 PTS, 38.0% FG, 23.0% 3FG, 75.0% FT, 3.2 REB, 3.7 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.7 BLK, 12.3 PER) suffered a strained neck in the former, while the aforementioned Payton (7.1 PTS, 61.6% FG, 35.8% 3FG, 60.3% FT, 3.5 REB, 0.9 AST, 1.4 STL, 17.8 PER) has been pronounced out of action for possibly the rest of the playoffs after injuring his elbow on that hard foul from Brooks.