Locking down Morant critical to Timberwolves’ playoff success

A little after midnight Sunday, two days after coughing up a big lead in a Game 3 loss, the Timberwolves evened their first-round NBA playoff series at two games each with a gritty 119-118 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.

And here is one very big reason: Ja Morant’s performance.

Morant had 15 assists to go with 11 points in Saturday night’s game at Target Center. But he needed 13 shots to score those 11 points, making only four. And he got to the free throw line just three times. Yet again in this back-and-forth series, one constant has been the Wolves defense on the Grizzlies’ best player.

This might be the biggest reason this series has become an extended one.

“We did a good job of putting a body in his way,” Wolves coach Chris Finch said after the Game 4 victory.

He makes it sound so easy.

It isn’t. The Wolves have used their “high wall” defense well against Morant, who lives off his drives to the basket, his finishes, his ability to get to the free-throw line. That scheme starts with Beverley on the ball. But it includes having the big in the pick-and-roll come out and high challenge instead of retreating. The Wolves often bracket Morant, try to get the ball out of his hands. If he does get into the lane the Wolves try to make sure he has to finish over a big.

After scoring 32 points in a Game 1 loss to the Wolves, Morant’s scoring production has steadily dropped. To be fair, he is still dishing the ball and grabbing rebounds. But this is the Grizzlies’ leader, an All-Star starter who averaged 27.4 points a game. The Wolves should be in a position to win games as long as they continue to frustrate Morant.

And it appears they are doing just that.

“I can be honest,” Morant said after Saturday’s game. “I’m not Ja right now. I’m not playing above the rim. I’ve just got to worry about finishing the bucket instead of worrying about the guys with stripes on.”

That was a reference to the Grizzlies believing Morant is getting hit but not getting calls. After the loss, Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins was more to the point: “I’ve never seen a more inconsistent and arrogant officiated game,” he said. And then, anticipating the fine coming his way: “I’ll take whatever hit’s coming my way.”

That’s part of the Wolves’ plan.

A 49.3% shooter during the season, Morant has shot 40% (26-for-65) during this series. In the two most recent games at Target Center, he shot 9-for-31, 29%.

“It’s just making it difficult for him,” Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “He’s one of the best leapers in the NBA. And he’s one of the best finishers, too. We’re just making it really difficult for him to get a good look at the rim and also to feel opposition at the rim. Just making sure every time he gets into the paint we’re throwing bodies at him and making sure he has to finish over a tall defender. We know he can score at a high level.

This is not surprising. Morant struggled vs. the Wolves during the regular season, too. His 33.8% shooting percentage against them during the regular season was his worst against any NBA team. His 20-point scoring average vs. the Wolves during the regular season is the same as his average in this series.

“I don’t know if he’s frustrated or not,” Anthony Edwards said. “But we’ve done a tremendous job as far as trying to keep him under control.”

And that will be the challenge going forward. The Grizzlies and Morant will have two days to adjust in what’s now a best-of-three series.

“They’re making adjustments all the time,” Finch said. “It’s just going to take a locked-in effort. If you want to stop great players, you’ve got to be great in all the things you’re trying to do.”

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