SAN FRANCISCO — Sometimes, both teams boasted prolific offenses. Sometimes, both teams played stifling defense. All of the time, both teams kept things interesting.
At this point, who knows what to expect when the Golden State Warriors host the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 6 of their semifinal series matchup at Chase Center on Friday (10 ET, ESPN)?
As the Warriors took a 3-2 series lead, we have seen nail-biters, such as the Warriors’ close wins in Game 1 (117-116) and Game 4 (101-98). We have seen blowouts, such as the Warriors’ rout in Game 3 (142-112) and the Grizzlies’ domination in Game 5 (134-95). We have seen contentiousness amid the physical play and the subsequent lobbying.
Even if this series has thrived on the unpredictable, however, there are a few trends that have emerged. Below are four things to watch in Game 6:
1. Will Warriors’ experience prevail?
The Warriors said Thursday coach Steve Kerr will be out until further notice while he recovers from COVID-19, which places Mike Brown as acting coach for the third consecutive game. Despite veteran forward Andre Iguodala making what the Warriors described as “good progress” on his neck injury, the Warriors ruled him out for at least another week. Also, Warriors reserve forward Otto Porter Jr. missed the entire second half of Game 5 with right foot soreness, leaving the Warriors to list him as questionable for Game 6.
And yet …
“I have 100% faith in our team,” Brown said. “Stuff like this happens. Championships are hard to come by. If that path to a championship was easy, it wouldn’t be gratifying.”
The Warriors seem well aware of the dangers of feeling complacent with a 3-1 series lead. The Cleveland Cavaliers became the only team in NBA history to overcome such a deficit in the NBA Finals, at the Warriors’ expense in 2016.
Since their first NBA championship of this contending run, in 2015, the Warriors have gone 19-9 in series-clinching games and 6-2 in Game 6s. They have gone 12-1 in playoff games that Brown has coached. And they have won all five of their home playoff games this year.
The Warriors don’t have Kevin Durant and a fully developed bench, as they did for most of their previous title runs. Though the Warriors have praised the atmosphere at Chase Center, it hasn’t quite captured the energy they enjoyed at Oracle Arena. And the Grizzlies’ 4-11 record in elimination games appears irrelevant because the team’s current group only played in two of them.
Still, the Warriors have a handful of stars (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green) and a coach (Brown) who have already faced much more difficult challenges.
Said Curry: “We’re still in control of the series.”
2. How do Grizzlies continue to adjust without Morant?
It does not help the Grizzlies that their star point guard will sit for a third consecutive game because of a bruised right knee. Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins considered it “pretty doubtful” that Morant will ever return in the playoffs.
Nonetheless, the Grizzlies have shown remarkable resiliency without him. They went 20-5 during the regular season while Morant stayed sidelined with numerous injuries. Against the Warriors, the Grizzlies showed how they can both struggle (Game 4) and thrive (Game 5) without Morant.
“We know how to play with each other better than any team in NBA,” Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks said. “We continuously find ways to keep up in our play. So, it’s just a fun style to play.”
Technically, Grizzlies guard Tyus Jones has taken Morant’s position. But Jones stressed that “I can’t fill his shoes by myself.” Instead, the Grizzlies have fielded a 10-man rotation that fills different needs.
In addition to Jones’ scoring and playmaking, Jaren Jackson Jr. has offered consistent secondary scoring and defense. Desmond Bane and Brooks have been wildcards amid injuries (Bane) and suspensions (Brooks) disrupting their consistency. And veteran big man Steven Adams has emerged as a game-changer in this series after not having a role at all.
Specifically against the Warriors, Morant’s absence coincided with Jenkins starting Adams at center. Jenkins abstained from play Adams much in the team’s first-round matchup against Minnesota because of Karl-Anthony Towns’ versatility as a post player and outside shooter. Adams then stayed sidelined for Games 1 and 2 after testing positive for COVID-19.
Since then, the Warriors have become less dominant in the paint, while Adams has proven effective in defending pick-and-rolls, avoiding situations in which he gets stretched out to the perimeter.
“The ball is in a lot of people’s hands and a lot of people are attacking from different angles,” Brown said of the Grizzlies without Morant. “Even Adams has it at the elbow and plays the split game. You have to go in knowing how to defend multiple actions as opposed to just sitting on Ja’s pick-and-roll and driving ability.”
The Warriors would much rather deal with that problem than face Morant again. The Grizzlies wished they had that luxury. But during his absence, the Grizzlies have shown they can play well without Morant while he cheers them on from the bench, including when the Grizzlies’ game-ops played the “Whoop Dat Trick” anthem during the Game 5 rout.
“He has great spirit with his teammates in the locker room,” Jenkins said of Morant. “His voice at halftime, before the game and after the game is being felt and heard. He’s talking about things — adjustments and bouncing ideas off of his teammates in game. It has been phenomenal. He’s been doing that all season long.”
3. Rebounds & turnovers will be key
One quick glance at the box score revealed everything on why the Grizzlies coasted through a 39-point Game 5 win. They dominated the Warriors on the boards (55-37) while winning the turnover battle (22-9). The Warriors beat the Grizzlies on the glass in the four other contests, while remaining sloppy with their ball handling in every game of this series.
That gives both the Warriors and Grizzlies two obvious areas to focus on in Game 6.
“We got to try to take care of the ball a little bit better and not go for home-run passes all the time,” Brown said, “And get into actions early in the game until we can get to our space and pace game.”
As for the rebounding?
“We have to put bodies on bodies,” Brown said. “When the shots go up, our guys have to turn and find a body and hit them first.”
Both solutions might be obvious. How the Warriors get there might be more complicated.
The Warriors lived with the turnovers because of their offensive brilliance. But they compensated on the boards with two different approaches: When the Grizzlies sat Adams initially, the Warriors went with a small lineup that called for everyone to crash the glass in hopes to maximize transition opportunities.
Following Gary Payton II’s left elbow injury in Game 2, the Warriors have started rookie forward Jonathan Kuminga for the past three games, hoping his athleticism could compensate for his learning curve. That didn’t happen in Game 5, prompting Brown to play reserve center Nemanja Bjelica in the second half of Game 5 in hopes that his length would help. Neither approach worked.
Brown sounded non-committal on whether he would explore a different rotation, or at least experiment more with smaller lineups. But with the Warriors nursing an injured center (James Wiseman) and two wing players (Iguodala, Porter), maybe the Warriors get creative. As for the Grizzlies? Jenkins gushed, “I love what I’m seeing on the floor” with Adams even if he still relies on an oxygen mask during timeouts to compensate for his lack of conditioning.
Said Jenkins: “We’re going to need that effort to go up a level, the execution to go up a level and the urgency to go up a level.”
4. Will Jordan Poole snap out of his funk?
Poole simply hasn’t been the same in the past two games. The reasons have less to do with Jenkins indirectly accusing him of injuring Morant. They have more to do with the Grizzlies putting more added pressure on Poole.
Poole shot poorly in Game 4 (14 points on 4-for-12 shooting, 0-for-3 from deep) and in Game 5 (three points on 1-for-6 shooting, 1-for-3 from 3). That marked a steady drop from what Poole showed in Game 1 (31 points on 12-for-20 shooting, 5-for-10 from deep), in Game 2 (20 points on 8-for-16 shooting, 1-of-6 from 3) and in Game 3 (27 points on 11-for-17 shooting, 3-for-5 from deep).
“It’s tough because part of JP’s game is his ability to get to the rim and his quickness,” Brown said. “That usually gets him going. With the way that they’re clogging the paint, it’s been a little tough.”
Poole experienced a similar journey in the Warriors’ first-round series against Denver. After posting promising numbers in Game 1 (30 points on 9-of-13 shooting), Game 2 (29 points on 10-of-16 shooting) and Game 3 (27 points on 9-of-13 shooting), Poole went only 3-of-10 from the field in both Games 4 and 5. With those developments coinciding with Poole’s opponents becoming more familiar with his tendencies, how should he adjust?
“We just want him to be aggressive, to play free and confident like he’s more than capable of doing,” Brown said. “When he does, it’s great for us.”
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