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Warriors-Grizzlies Series Takes an Ugly Turn After Reckless Dillon Brooks Foul

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistMay 4, 2022

Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks (24) fouls Golden State Warriors guard Gary Payton II (0) during the first half of Game 2 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in Memphis, Tenn. Brooks was ejected. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
Brandon Dill/Associated Press

If you hoped the flagrant-foul discourse would end after Draymond Green was ejected from Game 1 of the series between the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies, you've got another thing coming.

Less than three minutes into Game 2, Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks was ejected for knocking Warriors guard Gary Payton II to the floor as Payton was attempting a layup. Brooks swung at the ball, instead hitting Payton in the head. Brooks was given a flagrant-2 and ejected; Payton fractured his elbow on the play, staying in the game to shoot his free throws and even making one of them before going to the locker room.

The NBA world had about two hours to enjoy a masterful 47-point Ja Morant performance and the Grizzlies' evening out the most compelling series of the second round before the focus returned to litigating Brooks' foul.

In his between-quarter interview on the TNT broadcast, Warriors coach Steve Kerr called the foul "dirty." After the game, he said Brooks "broke the code" by knocking Payton out of the air and injuring him. Green called it a "bulls--t foul," which is hard to argue with but isn't really a sentiment most people want to hear from him.

"Everybody's going to compete," Kerr said. "Everybody's going to fight. But there's a code in this league, a code that players follow where you never put a player's season or career in jeopardy."

Whether Brooks meant to injure Payton is beside the point, and only he knows the answer there. A play doesn't have to be intentional to be reckless, and Brooks' foul qualifies as that. He deserved to be ejected for it, and if he gets suspended for Game 3 on Saturday, it will be in line with punishments Grayson Allen and Nikola Jokic took for similar plays during the regular season.

Still, it’s clear from the replays that Brooks was making a play on the ball and not intentionally trying to hurt Brooks. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a play he should have avoided.

A player with more experience in these types of games (this is only Brooks’ second postseason) would have known not to time the block while Payton was defenseless in the air. Kerr’s anger over the situation is more than understandable—he just lost one of his most important role players for at least the rest of this series. And at least one of Brooks’ own teammates hopes he learns from it.

Brooks may miss a game; Payton will likely miss the rest of the playoffs. And now, the rest of the series becomes about this. If Memphis wins, Warriors fans and players will never let them forget that one of their players injured one of their team's most important defenders. 

And whatever punishment Brooks gets from the league in the coming days will be compared by Grizzlies fans to Green's foul on Brandon Clarke in Game 1 (and, for that matter, to former Warriors center Zaza Pachulia's foul that injured Kawhi Leonard in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals).

Nobody's hands are clean here. It's unfortunate that this kind of stuff will overshadow what has through two games been a series that has lived up to the hype of the brash up-and-coming Grizzlies, led by Morant, providing a serious challenge to a veteran Warriors team hoping to extend their dynasty.

What happened Tuesday will likely wake up the Warriors if they weren't woken up already. Morant's missed last-second layup in Game 1 could have set up the Grizzlies to take a 2-0 lead back to San Francisco. That they weren't able to win the game in which Green missed the entire second half is probably not a great sign for their chances the rest of the way.

The loss of Payton hurts Golden State, which will have to cobble together minutes as rookie Jonathan Kuminga takes on a bigger role. What Payton brought on defense allowed the Warriors at least somewhat to cover for the several steps Klay Thompson has lost on that end after two major surgeries. Regardless, they still have the talent advantage in the series and have stolen home-court advantage from Memphis.

This series was already physical. Expect it to become even more so after Tuesday's "code-breaking." Relentless, competitive physical play is part of what makes the NBA playoffs great. This sort of back-and-forth, especially when a player gets hurt, is not. This is now going to be a series where the referee assignments make as much news going into the games as the lineup adjustments. Once Brooks' suspension is handed down, it will set off another round of interminable discourse and finger-pointing.

Hopefully, in the midst of all of this, the actual basketball stays as good as it has been.