Clippers can’t stop Ja Morant’s scoring surge in loss to Grizzlies

Clippers guard Reggie Jackson defends against Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant.
Clippers guard Reggie Jackson defends against Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant during the first half of L.A.’s 120-108 loss Thursday.
(Nikki Boertman / Associated Press)

Again and again, the Clippers’ coaching staff yelled toward FedEx Forum’s court to tell their defenders what the scouting report, Thursday’s first two quarters and even last season’s trip to Memphis had told them was coming.

Ja Morant was coming. And again and again, the star Memphis point guard with the slight frame and braids tied in a knot scythed into a short-handed version of the NBA’s second-best halfcourt defense, turning a game of punches and counterpunches into a 120-108 Grizzlies win lopsided enough that the Clippers pulled most of their starters with eight minutes to play.

Morant refused a screen from Steven Adams and instead drove into the chest of 7-foot Clippers center Ivica Zubac, levitated at the peak of his jump for what seemed like a full second, and scored off the glass even while his defender closed in from behind to nearly block the shot. Then he used an Adams screen and, seeing Zubac waiting, lofted a graceful floater. When the Clippers sent a defender underneath an Adams screen, Morant stepped back and coolly made a three-pointer. Off of a made Clippers free throw, he caught an outlet pass and zipped through Reggie Jackson, Isaiah Hartenstein and Luke Kennard at the rim for a layup with a sidestep and pure speed.


The Clippers have not embraced Arena, the new name for Staples Center after AEG inked a naming rights deal worth more than $700 million.

Nov. 17, 2021

Seventeen of Morant’s 28 points came in the third quarter.

“He’s just shifty, really shifty,” Clippers star Paul George said. “He’s a little guy, he’s not that big, not that tall. So it’s hard to play and get as low as him. He just comes off and he’s explosive.

“We had a game plan to kind of keep him one way or keep him going this direction, but with a guy like him it’s tough to do. He’s got a lot of gifts on his side, a lot of just God-given natural talent on his side that just makes him a nightmare as a defender to kind of contain him. We’ve done it, but tonight wasn’t the night that we did it.”

George scored 23 points on 50% shooting, with six assists, five rebounds and just one turnover, a season-low after committing at least three in each of his first 14 games. It was a clean game on a night when strong shooting — the Clippers (9-6) made 46% of their shots, and 41% of their three-pointers — didn’t tell the whole story of their offense.

“I think we’re getting stagnant a lot, lot of dribbling and holding for no reason, instead of getting to the second action, changing sides of the floor, so we got to do better with that,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “Just making quick decisions — either shoot it, drive it or move it. And we haven’t been doing that as of late.”

Clippers forward Paul George dribbles while defended by guard Dillon Brooks.
Clippers forward Paul George dribbles while defended by guard Dillon Brooks in the second half Thursday in Memphis.
(Nikki Boertman / Associated Press)

Jackson scored 18 points and Zubac added 13, but only four after the first quarter.

Entering Thursday, NBA teams overall were 25-8 when making at least 16 three-pointers and holding their opponents to 11 or fewer. That record is now 25-9 because Memphis didn’t need to score outside. Already the NBA’s best this season at scoring in the paint, the Grizzlies (8-7) outscored the Clippers 74-36 there as Morant’s drives repeatedly punctured the defense. It’s the second-most points allowed in the paint this season behind only the 78 Houston gave up to the Lakers this month.


Memphis, which scored 70 points in the paint against the Clippers last season in an effort that left Lue furious with his team’s lack of physicality, is 2-0 against the Clippers.

“It wasn’t really a physicality factor, it was all schemes tonight,” George said. “We could have done just a little bit better of kind of shrinking the floor and being up on pick-and-rolls, make sure Ja couldn’t get downhill.”

Memphis made 37 shots inside the paint, one fewer than the number of paint shots the Clippers attempted. Memphis grabbed 47 rebounds, 13 more than the Clippers.

Paul George scored 34 points, and the L.A. Clippers defeated the San Antonio Spurs 106-92 on Tuesday at Staples Center.

Nov. 16, 2021

“We had a tough time guarding the ball at the point of attack,” Lue said. Even when guarding pick-and-rolls by sending a Clippers defender underneath the screen, “they still got to where they wanted to on the floor and put us in a tough bind,” he said.

Playing shorthanded with Nicolas Batum (Achilles’ soreness) sidelined and Justise Winslow (personal reasons) not on this two-game trip, against a fully healthy Memphis team that had an extra day of rest, the Clippers trailed by only three at halftime. But the margin didn’t reflect how often the Clippers were down by much more, and how much work it took to cut their deficit.

The Grizzlies had runs of 12-3, 9-0 and 8-0. The Clippers answered with runs of 12-2, 10-2 and, in the final 70 seconds of the first half, 7-0, the latter capped by a 28-foot three-pointer swished by George after using a behind-the-back dribble and crossover to free himself from Jaren Jackson Jr. When he made his first shot of the second half, a corner three-pointer, that run was extended to 10-0.


George made three additional three-pointers in the quarter, the kind of shooting that has made the team so dangerous in third quarters this season, where they held the league’s sixth-best net rating. The problem was Morant, who took 10 shots in the quarter — seven of which were in the paint and an eighth was only one step outside it.

“We threw a couple different coverages at him, off the touches, blitzes,” said Amir Coffey, who started for the first time since April 21 as Batum’s replacement at power forward, which isn’t the wing’s typical position, and finished with eight points and three rebounds. “But they did a good job of just moving the ball, getting downhill all game.”

Needing to spark another run to stay close, trailing 101-87 with 9 minutes, 29 seconds to play, Lue turned to one of his smallest lineups of the season by replacing center Hartenstein with forward Coffey. Instead, Memphis got the run, scoring three baskets within eight feet in the next 60 seconds. Lue called a timeout and pulled George to save his legs for Friday in New Orleans.