Two games into their Western Conference semifinal series, the Warriors and Grizzlies have taken basketball beyond post-dunk stares and trash talk. Beyond postseason physicality. There is violence. There is blood. Bodies are dropping when not flying.
Gary Payton II was knocked out of Game 2 Tuesday night in Memphis. Draymond Green’s eye took a wicked elbow seconds later and was swollen almost shut. Memphis guard Dillon Brooks was ejected for his act of malice against Payton three minutes after tipoff, which led directly to Warriors coach Steve Kerr expressing his rage on national television.
“That wasn’t physical,” Kerr said of Brooks’ overhand blow to the back of an airborne Payton’s head, sending him sprawling.
"That was dirty.”
That comment was made in an interview with TNT’s Jared Greenberg between the first and second quarters. That was before it was confirmed that Payton had sustained a fractured left elbow in his fall. And it was a full two hours before the Warriors went into the locker room with a 106-101 loss and a series tied 1-1.
Why was Kerr so angry? He quickly suspected Payton might not return to the game, and he did not. Kerr sensed the injury was severe enough that had no idea when or if Payton would return to the best-of-seven series.
That presents a gigantic problem for the Warriors insofar as Payton is the player designated to defend Grizzlies star Ja Morant, who scored 47 points -- 44 of which came after Payton was helped off the floor.
Golden State Warriors
By the time Kerr walked to the podium for his postgame news conference, his team had been torched by Morant, whose 18 fourth-quarter points lifted his team to victory. Moreover, Kerr also knew for sure that Payton, inserted into the starting lineup specifically to defend Ja, will miss the rest of the series.
Which is why his fury, aimed at Brooks, remained at maximum.
“Playoff basketball is supposed to be physical. Everybody is going to compete. Everybody is going to fight for everything,” Kerr said. “But there’s a code in this league. There’s a code that players follow. You never put a guy’s season/career in jeopardy, like taking somebody out in midair and clubbing him across the head and, ultimately, fracturing Gary’s elbow. This is a guy who has been toiling for the last six years, trying to make it in this league. He finally found a home, playing his butt off this year. In the playoffs, this should be the time of his life. And a guy comes in, whacks him across the head.
“He broke the code. Dillon Brooks broke the code.”
Kerr didn’t stop there. Asked where the line should be drawn between the rugged physicality so common in the playoffs and harmful play, he was ready.
“The line is pretty clear,” he snarled. “You don’t hit a guy on the head when he’s in midair, club him, and break his elbow.”
Kerr said he didn’t know if Brooks’ act was “intentional,” but lead official Scott Foster wasted no time assessing a Flagrant 2 foul, warranting an automatic ejection. Payton jumped toward the rim to attempt a layup and Brooks, racing from the rear, took a swipe that went nowhere near the ball.
Draymond Green, who was ejected from Game 1 after being assessed with a Flagrant 2 foul, said “it was a was a bull---t foul.”
Stephen Curry’s reaction was slightly less tart but still an expression of displeasure.
“It was kind of out of line, in terms of a defenseless player going up for a layup and (Brooks) taking a huge windup,” he said. “And everything bad that could have happened in that situation did. It knocked him out of the game.”
And also out of the series, which changes everything.
With Payton X-rayed and unavailable, Ja had his way with every defender the Warriors threw at him. He cooked Curry, roasted Jordan Poole, beat both Andrew Wiggins and Klay Thompson. Morant made five 3-pointers, got the rim at will and got to the line 13 times.
The Warriors have to shred the first page of their plan for the series. They have to decide whether to trap Ja, resort to zone and box-and-1 defenses. Or flat-out double-teams.
Kerr said he hopes to get Andre Iguodala back by Game 3 on Saturday, but that’s big burden to place upon even the wiliest 38-year-old veteran, who missed the first two games with neck soreness. His status will be updated in the coming days, but there is no certainty.
“If not, we’ll have to mix and match,” Kerr said. “We’ve got time to figure it out.”
The extended break between games is a blessing for the Warriors. But three days might not be enough time to solve the problem that is Ja Morant.