2023 Playoffs: West First Round | Grizzlies (2) vs. Lakers (7)

LeBron James clashes with Dillon Brooks as Grizzlies outlast Lakers in Game 2

Dillon Brooks doesn't hold back in his words or actions in guarding LeBron James throughout Game 2 and says afterward of the matchup: 'I poke bears.'


Dillon Brooks and LeBron James got chippy during – and then after – Game 2 in Memphis.

MEMPHIS – The bear officially has been poked.

It came more than an hour after the Grizzlies survived in Game 2 without All-Star point guard Ja Morant and beat the Lakers, 103-93, at FedEx Forum Wednesday night. The poke came from Memphis wing Dillon Brooks, his stick a flurry of brash, even reckless comments; the bear, LeBron James.

Maybe not the wisest thing to do, given how much it might motivate a player who can hurt Brooks and his team in a dozen different ways. But he did it.

“I don’t care, he’s old,” Brooks told a cluster of reporters from behind a pair of flashy sunglasses. The look and the words were fit for a WWE schtick, aimed to hype up ticket sales for next week’s card. In this case, that event comes Saturday, when the teams meet in Game 3 at Crypto.com Arena.

“He only said something when I got my fourth foul. Sure didn’t say nothing earlier on,” Brooks explained. “But I poke bears. I don’t respect no one until they come and give me 40. I pride myself on what I do, defense and taking on any challenge that’s on the board. If it’s LeBron, if it’s AD [Anthony Davis], if it’s whoever. I play my heart out — he knows that. The rest of the NBA knows that. I know my guys know that.”

Brooks and James have been and will be antagonists for as long as this Western Conference first-round series lasts. The intensity of their matchup dialed up considerably early in the third quarter, moments after Brooks got whistled for that fourth foul. With more than 21 minutes left, it was the sort of thing that might have put Brooks on his heels in his mission to shadow and pester the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

Nope. James and Brooks began jawing with each other, a back-and-forth with which, mercifully, no referee intervened. The Grizzlies led 66-48 at that point and things were in the process of getting much worse for the home team. The Lakers put together a 17-3 run that cut a 20-point gap to just 69-63.

With Morant a pregame scratch due to a badly bruised right hand, the last thing Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins probably wanted was one of his guys goading James into something game-altering.

That very nearly happened, too. James, 38 years old and still producing at elite levels, had scored 12 points when the two began yapping. He scored eight points the rest of the third quarter, then eight more in the fourth, finishing with a game-high 28.

I don’t care, he’s old. He only said something when I got my fourth foul. Sure didn’t say nothing earlier on. But I poke bears. I don’t respect no one until they come and give me 40. I pride myself on what I do, defense and taking on any challenge that’s on the board.”

— Grizzlies swingman Dillon Brooks, on LeBron James in Game 2

Brooks, to his credit, bent but didn’t break. He picked up a fifth foul but otherwise was able to guard when it mattered. He logged less than 23 minutes to James’ near-39, but Memphis was eight points better when Brooks was on the floor and 17 better with James out there.

Naturally, the media wanted to know as many details of their exchange as possible.

“He said, ‘You’re dumb for getting that foul,’” Brooks shared. “I play with my heart. Then I got to find a way not to get fouls on reads or transition, or when he’s driving. You don’t use those [type of] fouls for LeBron and AD and the guys I’m guarding, especially when you know the referees are going to call the ticky-tack stuff.”

And Brooks’ retort? “What’d I say? I said, ‘Oh, finally you want to talk.’ We started getting into a conversation. I said, ‘There’s no doubt you can’t take me 1-on-1. You haven’t.’”

This is the point at which Jenkins, when he learned of it, probably had veins bulging in his neck.

Brooks was thrown a lifeline of sorts, when one reporter asked if he really (really?) didn’t respect one of the NBA’s greatest players. Turns out, there was context to his comments.

“Obviously I have some respect,” Brooks said. “He’s a legend. He’s LeBron James. But when I’m on that floor, you’re just another player to me. I don’t care who you are. You’re just 6-8, 270 pounds and you’re a basketball player.”

To be effective in his job trying to stymie the league’s best players, Brooks has to yank them down from any pedestals.

“That’s where guys don’t see that part of the game,” he said. “I had those moments. Year 1, Year 2, it was like, ‘Oh, he’s glowing. He’s shining.’

“I can’t be looking at [him] that he’s LeBron James. He’s just another basketball player. And I’m ready for a challenge every single night.”

James didn’t have enough help, unlike the Lakers’ group performance in Game 1 Sunday. This time, Davis and D’Angelo Russell combined to shoot 6-for-25, totaling only 18 points. In the opener, they scored 41.

Rui Hachimura was hot again off the bench with 20, but overachiever Austin Reaves went under this time, dropping from 23 points to 12.

The Grizzlies were desperate – to even the series, to fill Morant’s void – and got everything they needed from replacement point guard Tyus Jones, backcourt mate Desmond Bane, big man Jaren Jackson Jr. and off the bench subs Luke Kennard and David Roddy.

Game Recap: Grizzlies 103, Lakers 93

They got way more than they had a right to expect from grinder Xavier Tillman Sr., filling injured Steven Adams’ spot. Tillman finished with 22 points on 10-for-13 shooting with 13 rebounds.

That left Brooks, who also talked a little shop in between the trash, sharing his chores in guarding James.

“It’s going well. I’m trying to defend without fouling,” he said. “A little bump here and there. Just get him tired. He’s a special player. That’s what you’ve got to do, that’s the recipe.

“It wears on him. … He’s not at the same level he was when he was All-Cleveland and winning championships in Miami. I wish I got to see that. It would have been a harder task. But I’m playing with him with what I got.
So if there’s wear and tear on him in a seven-game series, let’s see if he can take it. See if he wants to play the 1-on-1 battle or if he wants to be out on the sidelines shooting the basketball.”

Does Brooks’ defense wear on James mentally, beyond physically?

“I got him today. I got him talking to me,” Brooks said. “We’ll see Game 3 if he keeps talking and I’m out there playing.”

Brooks and his teammates will be out there in L.A. for the next two games, which means whatever commentary James doesn’t direct at him, Lakers fans will backfill.

Brooks’ reaction: Yeah, so?

“They booed me when I was there before. I get booed wherever I go,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me. Just gets me going. Been booed for about three years. It just goes to show that people know the name and they’ve got to boo the name ‘Dillon Brooks.’”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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