Tuesday night brought some deeply shitty news from the aftermath of the Grizzlies’ big win over the visiting Warriors, in Game 2 of their second-round series: Gary Payton II, a cool journeyman player whose perfect fit in Golden State’s rotation was one of the happier stories from this season, suffered a fractured elbow during a hard landing early in the first quarter, and may be out for a while. The fall that caused the injury followed a reckless foul from Memphis’s Dillon Brooks, who was immediately booted from the game. Payton’s status for the rest of the series is presently unknown, but in general a fracture in the shooting elbow does not sound like something that someone can play through in a professional basketball game.
The play that ended with the injury looked pretty bad. Memphis’s defense was slow getting back following a missed Brooks jumper, and Payton, running ahead of the ball, sprinted into a seam to the basket. Draymond Green, bringing the ball up the floor, spotted the cut and threw the ball ahead. Brooks seemed to be the only Grizzlies player aware of what was happening, and rushed back, but far too late to make any kind of reasonable effort to contest the shot. Payton rose up for a layup and Brooks clubbed him, hard, across the head and upper body. Payton stuck out his left hand in the fall and his straightened arm took on a lot of his body weight as he crashed to the floor. The moment of impact was harrowing and very gross, and Payton was on the floor for a while, in obvious pain.
Referee Scott Foster announced after a short review that Brooks had been assessed a Flagrant 2 penalty and was ejected from the game. Payton took his free throws—remember that once a player has been replaced at the free-throw line they are ineligible to return to the game—but then left the court and did not return.
The loss of Payton, for any significant length of this series, sucks. There’s the basketball part of it, of course: Without Payton, who is a relentless bulldog of a perimeter defender, the job of defending Ja Morant will be that much more difficult. Payton was moved into Steve Kerr’s starting lineup for this series precisely because he is the player on the Warriors who is most qualified to hound Morant and make his life difficult. This is now a problem for the Warriors to sort out, and the options aren’t great: Kerr indicated that he’s hoping Andre Iguodala, who has been out of action since Game 4 of the first round due to a cervical disc injury, will be fit to play by Saturday. A 38-year-old with a bum neck is probably not really the person you want chasing around the sport’s quickest player, but without Payton there are no obviously better solutions to be found in Golden State’s roster.
Kerr was very pissed about the foul, before anything had been learned about the elbow fracture and what it might mean for the rest of the series, reportedly shouting, “get the fuck out of here” at Brooks after Foster announced the Flagrant 2. After the game, Kerr called the play “dirty” and said that Brooks violated “a code that players follow,” by committing an avoidable foul that “put a guy’s season/career in jeopardy”:
This turn of events sucks in particular for Payton, who is on his fifth team in six professional seasons, and with the Warriors has earned his first stretch of playoff minutes since arriving in the league. Payton is not under contract beyond this season, but his emergence should earn him the first substantial payday of his basketball career. He joined Golden State last season on a 10-day contract, and has now worked his way all the way up to starting in a second-round playoff series, where he was given his team’s most important defensive assignment, an individual matchup with an MVP-caliber lead guard. This is for sure the high point of his journey through professional basketball—Kerr said it “should be the time of his life”—and now his damn elbow is broken and his series and possibly his season could already be over. That stinks, man!
Morant went for 47 points on 31 shots Tuesday night, which is normally the sort of thing that would have me hooting and hollering. I still hooted a little, and hollered at least once, but I also logged onto the internet and noted that during the roughly four minutes that the NBA says Payton was guarding him in Game 1, Morant was held to five points on six shots. Morant can make just about anyone look silly, but he will never have as easy a time putting Payton on skates as he does, say, Jordan Poole. The work Morant and his coach and teammates would have had to put in to shake loose with Payton inside his jersey should’ve been one of the fascinating details of the series. I don’t know anything about a code, but I know as a spectator that Payton’s injury, coming as a result of a bad and reckless move by a Grizzlies player, makes it harder to feel good about whatever noise Memphis makes in this series and beyond.