Warriors' quest to slow Ja now begins with Wiggins


SAN FRANCISCO -- With Gary Payton II missing the remainder of the Western Conference semifinals, the repercussions for the Warriors go beyond simply losing their designated defender against the Grizzlies’ most dangerous weapon.

Coach Steve Kerr wouldn’t divulge his strategy to keep Ja Morant from owning the series, but he unveiled the plan Thursday during the team’s lengthy practice session. Kerr mentioned several possibilities, including Jonathan Kuminga and Damion Lee.

He did not mention the most logical option to replace Payton’s assignment: Andrew Wiggins.

“We’re going to have to have guys step up in Gary’s absence,” Kerr said. “JK could be one of them, Damion Lee another. We can look at different combinations. Play [Kevon] Looney more, coming off the bench.

“But guarding Ja is a team effort. He’s a great, great player. It’s a team effort. It’s not going to be one guy trying to shut him down. It’s a team effort. And without Gary, we’ve got a tougher job on our hands.”

Wiggins, a veteran whose elite athleticism puts him in a class with Payton and close to Kuminga, seems to be the rational first choice. He spent much of the regular season defending the opponent’s top perimeter scoring threat, sometimes excelling and other times struggling.

At 6-foot-7, 205 pounds, he’s four inches taller and 25 pounds heavier than Morant. Giving him the job would be stealing from the script Denver followed in the first round by assigning power forward Aaron Gordon to slow Jordan Poole. It was effective.

Kerr and his staff learned what’s not effective in Game 2. With Payton out after fracturing his left elbow in the opening minutes, Morant torched a variety of defenders -- Jordan Poole, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Wiggins -- over the final four minutes, carrying Memphis to a series-tying victory. Memphis over the final 4:16 of the game scored 15 points -- all by Morant.

Coming off a series in which the Warriors found ways to neutralize Nuggets center Nikola Jokić, the reigning NBA MVP, Morant poses equally difficult riddles in a much different package.

“If you think you’re going to take away Jokić or Morant, you’re living in a dream world,” Kerr said. “You’re not taking those guys away. You’re just trying to win the game, whatever it means, whether it’s to limit them as best you can, to take away the easy stuff, you’ve got to figure out the best way to win the game.

“But you’re not taking those guys away.”

The antidote to Jokić was Draymond Green, who used guile to offset his size deficit and keep Jokić from dominating the series. Joker put up impressive individual statistics, but the Nuggets were ousted in five games.

There is no former Defensive Player of the Year to throw at Morant, which is why Kerr and defensive coordinator Mike Brown are experimenting.

“There was lots of stuff [seen] on film where we can better as a team,” Kerr said. “Not necessarily Jordan, but the whole group. We messed up a couple coverages that we’ll clean up. This is part of the playoffs.”

Which brings us back to Wiggins. Though he’s the logical option, he would essentially be moving from power forward to point guard on defense. It’s a tough move as is, but putting him on the perimeter will challenge his teammates to fill a sizable void in the paint.

Wiggins is averaging a team-high 7.3 rebounds per game in the postseason and 8.5 in the first two games of this series. Those numbers dwarf both his regular-season average (4.5) and his career average (4.4).

“Wiggs been playing great, especially with our smaller lineup,” Looney said. “Having a lot of scorers out there, he’s being asked to the dirty work. I don’t know if he’s ever had to do that in his career, but he’s been doing a great job at it.

“He’s doing all the energy plays that we need him to do. It’s kind of weird to ask an All-Star player to play that kind of role, but he’s accepted that role and still is able to score.”

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Kerr mentioned, as a byproduct of Payton's absence, the possibility of Looney getting more playing time. That would not be to guard Morant. It would be to free Wiggins to guard Morant.

Like Looney, Wiggins tends to accept whatever role comes his way. Give him a specific task, he responds. Witness the shift in his rebounding.

He’s the best option to slow Morant, which is why he’ll see plenty of time on the Grizzlies star in Game 3 on Saturday.

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