The Memphis Grizzlies tied up their 1st round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night without their All-Star Point Guard Ja Morant, as he works to recover from a wrist injury he sustained in their Game 1 loss. Thriving without the 23-year-old star, the Grizzlies rushed out to an early lead and never looked back, leading wire-to-wire to tie up one of the most exciting first-round series at 1-1.
In what has become a puzzling trend in the last few years, Memphis continues to find ways to win when they are missing their best player. In the 2021-22 season, Memphis was 20-5 without Morant, even stealing a 39-point win against the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in the playoffs, and 10-8 in the current season. What has Memphis found without their star player?
While he will have his share of highlight blocks and steals, Morant is a below-average on-ball and off-ball defender. He struggles to stay in front of his man and fight through screens, and not all of his deficiencies can be covered up by his DPOY teammate Jaren Jackson Jr. in a playoff setting.
The Grizzlies have several issues when Morant is on the court.
Since he came into the league, Memphis has had a 111.7 defensive rating with Morant playing, and a 108.6 defensive rating with Morant out. For reference 111.7 would have been a mediocre 13th in the league last year, while 108.6 would have been the 4th-best defense. Even though Morant’s backup Tyus Jones doesn’t provide a significantly different skillset on defense, his lower workload on offense allows him to put more effort into team defense, allowing the Grizzlies to lock down opponents when Morant is out.
Additionally, Morant has consistently ranked in the top 10 in the NBA in turnovers per game, which is somewhat expected from such a high-usage and young player. While he thrives in his speed and transition offense, the Grizzlies have consistently been subpar in slowed-down halfcourt offense, which is where Morant racks up these backbreaking turnovers.
Tyus Jones on the other hand, led the league in assist-to-turnover ratio this year at 5.6, playing with a steady and calm presence that helps Memphis be careful with the ball in their games without Morant on the court. Some credit can obviously be given to head coach Taylor Jenkins, who has been remarkable in his ability to keep the team calm and in control when their franchise player is out.
Still, it will be an interesting conversation moving forward if Memphis continues to win without Morant as the series resumes on Saturday in Los Angeles. Look for Memphis to play around their improved guard defense and slow things down as opposed to the fast pace of Morant.