The second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and third-seeded Golden State Warriors meet in the Western Conference semifinals. Memphis and Golden State beat the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets in the first round, respectively.
More Yahoo Sports NBA conference semifinals previews:
How they got here
Memphis Grizzlies (56-26)
The Grizzlies were a .500 team in ninth place on Nov. 26, when Ja Morant sprained his left knee nine minutes into a 32-point home loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Nobody saw their resurgence coming but Memphis.
Morant's teammates won 10 of their next 11 games without him and finished the season 20-5 in his absence. Soon after Morant returned, the Grizzlies bit off an 11-game win streak that spanned Christmas to mid-January, and they established themselves among the Western Conference elite. Since Thanksgiving, Memphis has been in a dead heat with the top-seeded Phoenix Suns — with a superior net rating.
Morant captured Most Improved Player of the Year award and gave the trophy to backcourt mate Desmond Bane, another deserving candidate. A third young building block, Jaren Jackson Jr., transformed into a Defensive Player of the Year finalist. Dillon Brooks, Steven Adams and a cast of willing role players, motivated masterfully by Coach of the Year candidate Taylor Jenkins, cemented a top-five defense.
The youthful Grizzlies struggled to extinguish a formidable first-round opponent — the Minnesota Timberwolves, an equally hungry, inexperienced team. When it mattered most, as he had all year, Morant delivered the goods, singlehandedly stealing the pivotal Game 5, proving his superstar turn was no regular-season achievement. Athleticism and toughness are a hell of a combination, and Memphis is full of it.
Golden State Warriors (53-29)
The Warriors started 18-2 and looked like the Warriors of old, before Kevin Durant made them unbeatable. Klay Thompson had yet to play a game. A trio of recent lottery picks were in development as helpful pieces in waiting. Golden State was back and only about to get better when the calendar was closing on 2021.
The remainder of the regular season was not so optimistic. Thompson's return was met with an injury to Draymond Green, and Green's return was met with an injury to Stephen Curry, and the Warriors were a .500 team the rest of the way, unable to get their championship core on the floor together for any stretch of time.
The disjointed season allowed Andrew Wiggins to make his first All-Star team, Jordan Poole to join the Most Improved Player conversation, Gary Payton II to emerge as an All-Defensive candidate and Jonathan Kuminga to progress. Everything finally came together in the first round, when the Warriors unleashed a wave of small-ball lineups that buried reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets in a five-game series.
Head to head
The Grizzlies won their regular season series with the Warriors, 3-1.
Thompson missed the first two meetings, Green missed the third and neither played in the final showdown, when Curry missed the game, too. Golden State's lone victory came on Dec. 23, as Curry scored 46 points and Morant struggled in his second game back from injury. Morant also missed their March 28 meeting, but his teammates delivered in a 28-point blowout against the Warriors' second unit. Beware drawing too many conclusions when Curry, Green and Thompson did not play a single minute together against the Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies scrapped Adams at center when Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns presented a matchup problem, and Golden State's small-ball lineups present similar issues for the veteran big man. Morant, Brooks, Bane and Jackson will be in the closing unit, so long as Jackson can avoid foul trouble, and that quartet outscored opponents by 21.4 points per 100 possessions in a small sample size, per Cleaning the Glass. Brandon Clarke meshed well with them against Minnesota, but the Grizzlies can go smaller against the Warriors. Kyle Anderson is a veteran fit, and they can try Tyus Jones in a super small and skilled lineup.
Golden State Warriors
Warriors coach Steve Kerr unleashed his latest death lineup of Curry, Poole, Thompson, Wiggins and Green to great success in the opening round. That group finished +23 in 39 minutes against Denver. Golden State should ride them until their dominance disappears. Then, Otto Porter Jr. and Andre Iguodala are lying in wait to provide more size and superior defense if Kerr feels the need to pull Poole from the playoff spotlight.
Matchup to watch
Curry and Morant might be the two most popular players among young NBA fans. They are certainly the league's two most thrilling players. How much they will be lined up opposite each other is another question.
Payton drew the bulk of the work against Morant during the regular season, holding the Grizzlies star to 2-for-12 shooting on a substantial 85 possessions. Payton could earn a spot in Golden State's closing lineup if he holds up, since Morant torched just about everyone else on the Warriors in more limited sample sizes.
Brooks got the call against Curry in the lone game they played against each other this season, and the Grizzlies' best perimeter defender held the Warriors star to 2-of-7 shooting on 39 possessions. De'Anthony Melton got the call otherwise, and Curry scored 20 points over nine minutes against the Memphis reserve.
Just give us a few possessions of Curry and Morant guarding each other, because at some point Curry will have to pass the highlight torch to another guard, and they should both be on the poster when it happens.
May 1: Golden State at Memphis, 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
May 5: Golden State at Memphis, 9:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
May 7: Memphis at Golden State, 8:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
May 9: Memphis at Golden State, 10 p.m. ET (TNT)
May 11: Golden State at Memphis, TBD (TNT)*
May 13: Memphis at Golden State, TBD (ESPN)*
May 16: Golden State at Memphis, TBD (TNT)*
Memphis Grizzlies (+210)
Golden State Warriors (-275)
Warriors in six.
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