2022 Playoffs: West First Round | Grizzlies (2) vs. Timberwolves (7)

'I'm not Ja right now': Morant trying to get on track ahead of Game 5

Memphis' standout guard has struggled to score consistently in the playoffs as the Grizzlies seek to gain playoff momentum.

Veteran guard Patrick Beverley (right) has helped key Minnesota’s defense on Ja Morant.

Nobody in the NBA improved as much from the end of last season through the first 10 days of April as Memphis’ Ja Morant, so says the hardware.

At this point, though, the Grizzlies are focused on Morant’s improvement from Saturday night through whatever remains of their first-round playoff series against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Morant, winner of the Kia NBA Most Improved Player award announced Monday, is widely billed these days as one of the bright, young faces to watch in the NBA over the next decade or so. But the Wolves have managed to turn that smiley face upside down through four games, with Game 5 Tuesday (7:30 ET, TNT).

The wiry, supremely confident point guard whose stats bumped up to 27.4 points, 5.7 rebound and 6.7 assists per game, 49.3% shooting and 34.4% on 3-pointers during the regular season has seem them bump down. In these four games against Minnesota, he is at 20.5 ppg on 40% shooting (27.3% on 3-poitners).

I can be honest right now. I’m not Ja right now. I feel like I’ve seen y’all tweets — y’all know what I’m talking about.”

— Grizzlies star Ja Morant

He’s rebounding (7.8) and setting up teammates (10.8) at higher rates, but that’s mostly Morant compensating for not being his electrifying, explosive self. Capable of dominating any game in which he plays, the Grizzlies’ primary weapon has dominated none so far in this round.

And he knows it.

“I can be honest right now. I’m not Ja right now,” Morant said after Memphis’ Game 4 loss Saturday at Target Center. “I feel like I’ve seen y’all tweets — y’all know what I’m talking about. Yeah, I’m not playing above the rim. Most of the time when I go to the rack, I’m getting bumps, all this. I just gotta worry about finishing the bucket instead of worrying about the guys in stripes.”

In a ranking of the Grizzlies’ concerns with this series reduced to a best-of-three, Morant probably sits third. First, at least as coach Taylor Jenkins and several players saw it as Saturday’s late tipoff bled into Sunday’s wee hours, was an inconsistent and unfair whistle.

Can Ja Morant get back to his familiar self in Game 5 against Minnesota?

Jenkins complained himself into a $15,000 fine from the NBA for his remarks, not just about his team’s 33 fouls and the Wolves’ 40-25 disparity

in free throws but for how “poorly” the “arrogant” crew of game officials did its job. Through the four games, Memphis has been called for 99 fouls to Minnesota’s 111 and has shot 131 free throws to the Wolves’ 118.

Concern No. 2 flows from No. 1: Big man Jaren Jackson Jr. has been turned into a part-time player by his inability to avoid fouls and stay on the court. Jackson finished fifth for Kia Defensive Player of the Year after leading the NBA in blocked shots (2.3), and he’s doing fine there (3.0) in the series. But he also led the playoffs after four games with 20 fouls, the management of which has had Jackson spending more time on the bench than on the floor (23.8 mpg).

But Morant wouldn’t even be on the list of Grizzlies’ concerns if he and his teammates were playing at the level that got them the 56-26 record, second in the league only to Phoenix’s 64-18. Memphis was excellent when Morant played (36-21) and even better when he didn’t (20-5) with Jenkins’ other players rallying around Morant’s injury absences.

Oh, that’s a factor too at the moment: Morant still has some pain in his left knee after missing 11 of the final 13 regular-season games. That and the multiple defenders sent his way by Minnesota coach Chris Finch — a kind of mini-wall typically seen against Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo — have limited the Grizzlies guard’s assaults on the rim. They have had him thinking more than attacking, slowing Memphis’ offense from its best self.

Memphis looks to correct its mistakes from Sunday's loss vs. Minnesota ahead of Game 5 on Tuesday.

No one imagined Minnesota’s frenetic Patrick Beverley to hold any edge in the point-guard matchup in this series, other than maybe fouls and technicals. But in the two games at Target Center, Beverley averaged 15.5 ppg while shooting 47.6% and 36.4% on threes. Morant? He posted 13.5 ppg on 29% and 20% on 3-pointers as they tied with eight fouls each.

A few snarkers on social media implored him in the past couple days to tweet less and score more.

Morant explained some of this struggle after Game 4. “They just adjusted, changed their game plan,” he said. “First two games, they pretty much stayed home to our shooters, allowing me to get downhill. Now every time I come off, I’m seeing three bodies.

“Only thing I can do after that is just make the right play. That’s why you see, I had 15 assists in this game. I know a lot of people don’t like that, that I don’t have 30 every night.”

Morant’s challenge now is not unlike the one faced — and met — by Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, his team’s best player who finally played like it in Game 4 (33 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter in the 119-118 victory).

Said Morant: “It’s three-game series now, and we got an opportunity with two of them at home. Just gotta go study the film and correct whatever we got to, and hopefully, the other [Grizzlies] correct their selves, too.”

Year-over-year improvement matters less right now than game-over-game.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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