Anthony Davis and LeBron James are the rocks, and Denver Nuggets wing Jerami Grant is in a hard place.
With the ball in his hands, Davis towers over Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, while James waits on the wing. Grant is in between them, hopping from one foot to the other at the nail, trying frantically to cover all the weapons at the Los Angeles Lakers’ disposal. Davis can pull up. He can drive. Murray needs help. But LeBron can shoot. He can cut. He can dunk.
Then Davis does Grant his first favor, jumping in the air before telegraphing a pass. Grant’s splayed out 6-foot-8 frame is stretched out just enough to be in two places at once. He jumps backward, grabs the ball and is off to the races. James, the chase down artist, and Davis, the perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, cushion him all the way to the rim. But Grant eventually breaks free.
On Tuesday, Grant poured in a personal playoff career-high 26 points in Denver’s Game 3 win.
It’s a moment. But it’s also momentary. Unfortunately for his 210-pound body, no Nugget has spent more combined time guarding James and Davis than Grant. All playoffs long, he has been tasked with matchups that are bigger, stronger and faster than him. His job is to try to make up the difference. With the Nuggets trailing the Lakers 3-1 in the West finals after L.A.’s 114-108 victory on Thursday night, the gulf has never felt so wide, and the need to chart it has never felt so urgent.
Finding a hoops home
Grant, considered a tweener — not fast enough to be a guard, not big enough to be a forward — was the 39th pick in the 2014 NBA draft, but Denver Nuggets president Tim Connelly told Yahoo Sports that they had long coveted him. “He’s a multi-position player that can guard a lot of different guys,” Connelly said. “He’s expanded his offensive game and become a reliable 3-point shooter and above-the-rim athlete, so I think he checks a lot of boxes.”
Grant, in fact, is a lot like cardboard.
Most people only know him in relation to the precious cargo he tries to contain: in round one, Donovan Mitchell; in the second, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard; and now in the Western Conference finals, James and Davis.
Grant, the son of longtime NBA player Harvey Grant, isn’t flashy or well-known, but he’s easy to build around. On his own, he is malleable. Stacked together with other multi-positional defenders, like Paul Millsap, Gary Harris and Torrey Craig, he is pliable. The Nuggets didn’t win any news conferences when they traded for him. But they executed a plan to win more games.
“Cardboard,” writes Sara Hendren, in “What Can A Body Do?,” “has the virtue of being provisional, and it retains its experimental spirit even while it offers its sturdy strength. That unlikely seeming combination of virtues — contingency and strength — is just right for fostering the design of adaptive furniture. It’s also a great match for the near-magical plasticity that marks the development of young children.”
You need that kind of malleability to build around Nikola Jokic, a scoring and passing savant who summers as the slowest-footed center in the hustling, bustling modern NBA. You need someone to fight around pick-and-rolls and keep up with quicker guards, to switch onto burly centers and defend post-ups, someone who can box out and lock down and speed up.
So when the Oklahoma City Thunder offloaded George and Russell Westbrook last summer, Connelly smelled a rebuild and called Thunder general manager Sam Presti to inquire about Grant’s availability. Presti got a first-round pick for Grant. The Nuggets got another reinforcement, another dribbling contingency plan alongside Craig and Millsap, another cog in the wide-ranging experiment it is to build around Jokic.
Defending the all-time greats
The Lakers threw the Nuggets around in the first two games of the West finals. Denver knew it had to manage the glass and get back in transition. But after a seven-game series against the Los Angeles Clippers in the semis, it had no time to adjust. Coaches emphasized those points in film and shootarounds, but Denver looked overwhelmed by the Lakers’ strength. The Nuggets weren’t just fighting size. They were fighting muscle memory. There are times when Grant guards Davis and doesn’t charge back down the floor in transition and times when he forgets to pick up James at halfcourt.
When asked to compare the two, Grant says Leonard and James are “two completely different players.” “LeBron is more transition,” Grant said via phone last week. “He gets a full head of steam before he usually attacks, and Kawhi is more bump and go.” Against Leonard, Grant was absorbing calibrated shocks and readjusting mid-play. Against James, he has to steel himself against one fell swoop.
In Game 1, James dribbled up the floor in semi-transition, and barreled into the paint. Grant was in front of him, and he tried to clasp the ball. But it wouldn’t budge; a crash course in James’ superhuman strength. Off-balance, Grant was forced to foul. The next game, on the same type of play, Grant didn’t swipe at the ball. He got into position to take a charge, absorbing the weight of a 270-pound steamroller in motion. Grant hit the hardwood. James was awarded two free throws.
Grant got up. He knows it will happen again.
Becoming a player
Grant has never been a star. “Growing up,” he said, “I’ve always been the guy that will do a lot of the things that other people can’t do or aren’t really willing to do.”
When he was a kid, he wanted to quit his basketball team because he wasn’t getting any playing time. His mom made him stay. She told him he made a commitment, and he had to follow through. “Once you start something, you owe that situation the courtesy of finishing it,” Grant said. “You owe that situation everything that you have until that situation is done.”
He went to DeMatha High School in Maryland surrounded by pro prospects. He fluctuated on and off the bench at Syracuse, where he hoisted just 20 triples in two seasons. When the Philadelphia 76ers drafted him, Stephen Curry was on the verge of changing the shape of the NBA. Grant has spent his career catching up to the 3-point revolution and trying not to get washed away in the tide.
“I’ve been doing that for a while,” he said of his long-distance shooting. “It’s gradual. It’s never been anything crazy, in terms of one year to the next. It’s been a long process.” Grant is not a marksman. He shoots mostly open and semi-contested jumpers. While his volume has increased, it still lags behind average NBA wings. He hasn’t mastered his range as much as he’s worked to just expand and survive.
For a year in Oklahoma, his range inexplicably disappeared. He tried to be patient, but it’s hard. “Anything that you put a lot of time into, you want it to be damn near perfect,” Grant said. “I think it’s definitely frustrating at times, but it’s OK because I know the work I put in.”
That’s why after Game 3, Malone was thrilled for Grant. “We would be down 3-0 without Jerami Grant,” he said. “I’m proud of Jerami. It was great to see him have some success offensively because he’s been working so hard at it.”
Despite being down 3-1, the Nuggets have taken this plan farther than most expected. They have made isolating Jokic defensively much easier said than done by surrounding him with long, athletic wings.
“He’s a monstrous part of who we are,” Connelly said of Grant, who is up for an extension next year. “We wouldn’t be here without him, and we’re very excited this offseason to make sure that continues for a long time.” Grant, for his part, has likely added some dollar figures to his name with his performances in Games 3 and 4.
With Grant guarding him, James has scored 21 points on 18 shots, dishing seven assists but turning it over six times. More importantly, the Nuggets have done a good job of shielding Jokic from James. In four games, James has taken only 11 shots with Jokic on him.
Davis poses a more unsolvable challenge. Grant hasn’t been able to hold him off as well, and Davis has naturally been able to isolate Jokic more, where he’s fleeced the Nuggets for 37 points on 20 shots. It might be time to throw Craig, who can muscle up down low, on Davis all game and see what happens.
Maybe the Nuggets can dig themselves out of this hole. If you haven’t heard, being down 3-1 isn’t a death sentence for them. Maybe they’ll come away realizing they need more reinforcements. Regardless of what happens next, Denver has tapped into a defensive formula that can work in the postseason and they can tinker with it as their core — one of the youngest in the NBA — continues to come into its own.
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