Within seconds of the Memphis Grizzlies’ overtime victory over the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco, which clinched them the NBA’s final playoff spot, Dillon Brooks was on the phone. In the middle of the court, the stadium still loud, his team’s first playoff birth in four years still incredibly fresh — he was holding his cell phone to his ear, while still in uniform, looking so casual about it that he may very well have been ordering a post-game pizza. What, one may have wondered, was this man doing? What on earth?
It’s a recurring question with Brooks, a fourth-year player who has quickly earned the NBA’s top ranking when it comes to flustering opponents and audiences alike. Following the victory over the Warriors, and after his odd phone call moment, Brooks took media availability alongside dominant second-year point guard Ja Morant, and he was wearing sunglasses indoors for the moment — a move that, when done by Michael Jordan and John Wall in the past, has signified elevated weirdness. But this is not a special occasion kind of thing, for Brooks. The post-game sunglasses are customary for a man whose proprietary blend of aggression and strangeness is at the heart of both his game and his emergent team’s postseason mission.
There is much that’s delightfully uncanny about Morant’s game as well. A consummate trickster, he combines deception with elite athleticism and a seemingly total allergy to nervousness, slithering and wiggling his way to the rim for clutch baskets. Against the Warriors, he did this to the tune of 35 points, including a game-winning floater and one of the more memorable fake-out plays of this era. Not bad for a 21-year-old. Previously in the season, Ja quietly did revolutionary stuff on offense, utilizing the backboard as a passing pad in a way that league scorekeepers seem to not quite understand: credited as missed shots that then led to offensive rebounds and putback dunks for teammates — often big man Jonas Valanciunas — Morant pulls off a certain beguiling assist with increasing frequency.
Add in Kyle “Slo Mo” Anderson, a wing who deliberates on the court more confusingly and more effectively than just about anyone, and you start to understand the funky brew that this young team is taking siege of the league with. There’s much more to it, of course: Valanciunas’ bruising presence, the vast potential of young big man Jaren Jackson Jr., and the instant solidity offered by rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane; guys who, along with having fun names, proved their NBA-ready skills over four years of big-spotlight college ball. This is the oldest that the NBA’s youngest roster has ever felt.
On the heels of their upset win over the Warriors, the Grizzlies took it to this season’s leading team, the Utah Jazz, in Salt Lake City. Winning the first contest of their seven-game set 112-109, they made an impression that can be built upon for years to come, regardless of whether they stay in the fight against the Jazz juggernaut once their best offensive player, Donovan Mitchell, returns to their lineup for Game 2. Brooks was at his most mercurial in the contest, incensing the Utah crowd on his way to 31 points. Morant added 26, the role players made pivotal three-pointers, and Valanciunas bothered likely Defensive Player of The Year winner Rudy Gobert so much that he fouled out after just 25 minutes of action.
Given the strange context of Mitchell’s absence from the first game and how it disoriented the Jazz, the Grizzlies’ glory may be short-lived. Either way, the party they’ve already had has given followers much to say when it comes to the eternal riddle of how to build an NBA contender in a city without premier free agency magnetism. Inevitable in appraisals of a young, small market team are these contemplations on power and market size, and the hacky narrative framework that presents teams like the Grizzlies as plucky hard-working moralists looking for their space in a landscape ran by entitled titans.
But that is not how the Grizzlies carry themselves, or play the game. They are, rather, a team that understands both the fluidity and the brutality of basketball, and the emotional rhythms that tend to shape 48 minutes. Theirs is a level of feel that is rarely seen, a naturalism you can’t really draft or scout for, made up of happy roster accidents and unlikely career convergences. The question, going forward, is how much of this is owed to the nascent leadership of Morant, and coach Taylor Jenkins — because, as it looks right now, this seems from every angle of it like a hell-ship of runaway bandits, miraculously together to make noise that no one comfortable wants to hear. If they can maintain that energy in the years to come, the Western Conference will be an even more difficult place to find basketball peace.