How the Warriors outsmarted and upset the Grizzlies on Christmas Day

SAN FRANCISCO — Maybe the biggest play of the Warriors’ short-handed 123-109 Christmas win over the Grizzlies came while half the crowd was still returning from the concourse. It was the first possession of the second half. Jaren Jackson Jr. was guarding Draymond Green, giving Green a green light to go foul hunting.

The Warriors controlled the first half, leading by as many as 16 points. But a 6-0 Tyus Jones run in the final 27 seconds cut the Memphis deficit to five. The Grizzlies had momentum coming out of the locker room, but they also had an elite rim-protecting center who failed to stay on the floor in the first half because of three quick fouls. To clamp the Warriors, they needed Jackson to protect against a fourth whistle.

Nobody knew this better than Green, a hoops genius who gets particularly locked in during big matchups. He knew Jackson’s foul total, importance to the Grizzlies and his maddening tendency to reach in moments when he shouldn’t. So, eight seconds into the half, Green came strolling up for a typical dribble handoff with Donte DiVincenzo, saw Jackson’s long arm reaching into nearby airspace and gave himself a quick audible into a fake DHO dive, flailing into Jackson’s arm.

Whistle. Green got what he was looking for and immediately held up four fingers towards the Memphis bench, alerting the Grizzlies that it was already time to sub Jackson out of the game. Here’s the clip.

The NBA scheduled this matchup for one of its marquee Christmas matchups in part because of the mutual disdain neither side can hide. It’s healthy interplay between a rising, confident young contender obsessed with knocking the established champ off the block.

Memphis’ core is younger, longer and bouncier and has had games when they’ve physically overwhelmed the older, slower Warriors. But just like the totality of that six-game second-round series win seven months ago, the Warriors seem to outlast the Grizzlies with their brains, beating them in the marginal ways that have always made champions champions. Green’s baiting of a Jackson foul is a small example in a game filled with them.

“They’re talented,” Klay Thompson said. “We’re talented. We’re seasoned.”

This profiled as a terrible time for the Warriors to get a motivated Grizzlies team, finally healthy after Desmond Bane’s recent return. Steph Curry will miss at least a couple of more weeks and Andrew Wiggins sat his 10th straight game, nursing a groin injury that coach Steve Kerr acknowledged has lingered longer than expected.

But — easier said in retrospect — it may actually prove to be the perfect time for the Warriors to have drawn the Grizzlies. They came wobbling back home after a 1-5 trip that dropped them to 15-18 on the season, and they needed a locked-in performance to jump-start a crucial eight-game homestand as they attempt to tread water long enough for Curry’s return.

Green, listed as questionable with foot soreness, physically looked fine and brought his typical focus to a big stage. Conducting so much of the action, he had 13 rebounds, 13 assists and his typical technical. Thompson didn’t shoot it well, but he was physical defensively and spent the night yapping at the Grizzlies, punctuated by the memorable taunt of a stumbling Dillon Brooks after Thompson buried a jumper to basically seal the win.

“Just some good old-fashioned trash talk,” Thompson said. “I didn’t think it warranted a technical, but I forgot about the taunting rule.”

Jordan Poole played the night’s most important role. To beat Memphis’ defensive length and activity, you need a shot creator and maker. Without Curry and Wiggins, the Warriors are basically left with Poole, who was coming off a rough end to the recent road trip.

Poole scored 17 points in the first quarter, fighting through Brooks’ physicality, over Jackson’s length and backdoor behind the Grizzlies’ overplay scheme to score on a variety of stepback 3s, midrangers and floaters. He had 32 points in 29 minutes early in the fourth quarter. But that’s also when he stared down official Marc Davis after a no-call and was hit with a second technical, leading to an automatic ejection. It was Poole’s eighth technical of the season.

“He knows that he can’t get a second one,” Kerr said. “He’s still a young player. Jordan was fantastic tonight. We needed his offensive firepower. The great thing with Jordan is I still think he has a level or two to go to really get to the point where he’s reaching his ceiling. That involved playing with poise — whether it’s avoiding the referees or taking care of the ball. But he’s doing a great job competing and helping us stay afloat.”

Bane hit the free throw after Poole’s ejection, trimming the Warriors’ lead to 16 with 9:20 left. Absent of context, that margin seems comfortable, but it felt vulnerable without Curry, Wiggins and Poole given the lack of bench punch the Warriors have shown most of the season.

But that’s what was different and encouraging about this game for them. The focused veterans led, but the young group behind them followed. Kerr went to a lineup that included Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and James Wiseman late in the first quarter and, over a five-minute stretch, the Warriors actually bumped the lead up two points against one of the league’s deepest teams.

Kerr peppered them into the rotation again in the second half, and all three lottery picks gave productive minutes. Moody scored 10 points and hit a big fourth-quarter 3 the possession after the Poole ejection. He was a plus-2. Kuminga muscled his way to eight free throws. He was a plus-21. Wiseman didn’t even attempt a shot in his eight minutes, but he probably delivered the best defensive stretch of his early career.

After Wiseman’s first-half run, Kerr came over to hype him up and even let him know of his lone negative: “The foul was bulls—.”

“He was great defensively,” Kerr said of Wiseman. “Great. Patrolling the paint. Staying in between the ball and the basket but still being able to cover the roll man.”

Kerr, in an extended interview in New York last week, went into greater detail on Wiseman’s (and Kuminga’s and Moody’s) development. You can read that here.

But these are the types of improved possessions Kerr is referring to. In a 10-second clip, he bottles up multiple pick-and-roll actions and comes weakside to contest a shot.

Or how about this for a heartening sequence for the Warriors’ front office and coaching staff? Kuminga opens on Ja Morant. The Grizzlies screen him off to get Morant attacking Wiseman. Kuminga recognizes it and gets back in the play in time to stop Morant’s baseline drive. Wiseman recognizes and falls back into position to still protect the rim. Morant dribbles a pass out of bounds.

Donte DiVincenzo hit two huge first-quarter 3s, had five total and scored 19 points, continuing his emergence. Anthony Lamb made three first-half 3s. Ty Jerome had what Kerr called the biggest sequence of the night, making three straight jumpers in a 65-second span to give the Warriors the separation they needed. They’re getting useful production from both of their two-way contract players.

It all came together for a second statement win in their past two home games. The Warriors are 16-18, but they beat the Celtics pretty convincingly without Wiggins and just walloped the Grizzlies without Curry and Wiggins, taunting them the entire way. Those were their two biggest threats in the playoffs a season ago. Neither rival, in advantageous scenarios, has yet to solve them.

“I just challenged the guys to build on it,” Kerr said. “We’ve got seven straight home games coming up. We’ve been great at home, but we haven’t really built a lot of momentum this year. It’s kind of been stops and starts. So it feels like it’s time to turn it up.”

(Photo of Draymond Green driving against Jaren Jackson Jr.: Darren Yamashita / USA Today)

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