The Art of Retaliation

Updated: May 6, 2022
brooks payton II

My apologies for our younger readers who may not know the non-basketball reference back from the year 2000, but when I think of the word retaliation in sports, the first image that comes to mind is always the same. On the tail end of a back-to-back between the two New York ballclubs, Yankee All-Star starting pitcher Roger Clemens drilled homerun hitting catcher Mike Piazza in the skull with a 98-mile per hour fastball. Clemens, arguably the greatest power pitcher to never be inducted to the Hall of Fame due to steroid allegations, was as dominant at his craft as any 7-foot All-NBA monster in the paint. And he did it much in the same way, through a blend of skill and intimidation. 

Every pitcher in baseball knows, that if one wants to truly hurt a hitter, you don’t throw at him directly but behind his head. The natural reaction of a human being seeing a heavy object being hurled at nearly 100 miles an hour is to jump back away from the plate leaving their forehead exposed. With dead-eye precision, Clemens shot a bullet fired from his god-given cannon just below the helmet and hit Piazza just above the eyes nearly ending his career and possibly his life. That entire summer in baseball orbited around the hope that the Mets and Yankees would meet again, and Clemens would be forced to take an at-bat and face the code of retaliation that is cemented in the unspoken laws of baseball. 

And as good as the basketball has been in these 2022 playoffs, nothing draws a crowd in like the potential for blood. Immediately after the Dillon Brooks Flagrant 2 at the basket that presumably ended Gary Payton II’s season with a fractured elbow, Steve Kerr identified the play as “dirty,” the most emphatic word in all of sports. Although in his post-game interview after the loss, Kerry stated there is no way to know a player’s intentions, he doubled down on the old-school redirect and invoked the unwritten laws:

“There’s a code that players follow. You never put a guy’s season or career in jeopardy by taking someone out in mid-air and clubbing him across the head and ultimately fracturing Gary’s elbow. He broke the code,” Kerr continued. “Dillon Brooks broke the code.”

Coach Steve Kerr, a championship decorated 6-foot 2 role-playing sniper, is best known for two things as a player for the Chicago Bulls. The first is the wide-open buzz-beating jumper against the Utah Jazz that ended the 1997 Finals that came from a Michael Jordan assist. The second is the punch to the face he took at the hands of Jordan in a practice that later gained Michael’s unwavering respect. As diplomatic and comical as Kerr pretends to portray in the media, he is an old-school 90’s undersized guard who collected his 3-point jumpers in arguably the most physical era in basketball. 

The precedent has been set with his two words, dirty & code. It wasn’t so much the broken elbow, but the blow to the head mid-air that if an act of this kind was done once a game, there would be very few players left by the playoffs. It is a defenseless position, where in flight, especially for a high-riser like GPII, they are extremely vulnerable to injury even by just the slightest push to the back. Instead, Brooks wound up and swung at Payton’s head with no play on the ball which could’ve ended Payton’s career if he would’ve landed on his head or neck. 

There is a deeper sentiment on and off the court around the injury in that Payton for 6 years has been scrapping for NBA minutes only to find his first true home in the Bay at a ripe 29 years old. In his second start in the playoffs with the assignment to lock down All-NBA guard Ja Morant and expected to finally get a real contract come the offseason, the injury carries with it layers of disappointment. One is the personal story of an underdog defender finally making it in the association and the second, the Warriors lost their only plus defender built to slow down Ja.

And that brings us to the potential of retaliation in the most anticipated Game III of the playoffs. Though Brooks was ejected only minutes into Game II and was recently given the 1-game suspension for Game III, the entire NBA knows that Dillon Brooks gives as much he takes from Memphis’ production, and they have arguably been better when he was sidelined with injury as he missed most of the regular season. He also is known as their physical enforcer and after the Flagrant 2 given to Draymond Green on the hit to the head and jersey pull on Clarke in Game I, there is a question if the early act on Payton was just that—retaliation.

So because an injury to Brooks would have little to no negative effect on the Grizzlies and arguably his suspension also essentially is irrelevant to the series, what does Kerr decide is a suitable punishment in Game III? Unlike in baseball where losing a pitcher to retaliation could swing a game, the Warriors have two bigs in Oakland native Juan Toscano Anderson and Serbian-born Nemanja Bjelica who are nonusable weapons in this series due to their athletic limitation against this young fast running Memphis squad.

Outside of a punch to the face, under the Adam Silver administration, there is no imaginable event of retaliation that would grant more than a two-game suspension. And considering that Juan Toscano is essentially being paid 1.7 million to check a diversity box on the bench as a glorified cheerleader, Kerr may simply play him early minutes and allow JTA to decide the suitable form of punishment on his own without prior conversations with his coaching staff.

With how vulnerable sophomore guard Desmond Bane has been with his visibly aching back, it wouldn’t take much to take him out him the series with a play that wouldn’t even merit more than a Flagrant 1. And although he has been hobbled, the hope is that he will heal prior to the series with the Suns, because without Bane’s shooting and defensive versatility, they likely have no shot at making the Finals without him. 

Warriors’ fans are demanding a similar act on Ja in the air at the basket where he frequently puts himself in compromising positions. As loved as Ja is for his tenacity and honesty on the microphone in post-game interviews, one would assume that Kerr would not opt for injuring an ascending star. But we all remember the Zaza Pachulia foot under Kawhi in the Western Conference Finals. Did Kerr instruct Zaza to injure Leonard? It’s extremely doubtful. Did everyone on the Warriors know prior to the act that ended Kawhi’s season that he was already nursing a bad ankle from the previous series in Houston? Absolutely.

Athletic Alchemy has pointed out the variable of intention and the fear of everyone involved to make a clear and definitive statement on if the assassin’s job on Gary Payton II was in fact intentional. Considering the play happened so early in the 1st quarter directly after Game I where one of Brooks’ teammates was pulled out of the air by his jersey, it clearly appears that it was an intentional act. And to assume it wasn’t, seems to be an odd logic considering what type of player Brooks appears to be. If the case was held in a court of law, it appears Brooks upheld a code of his own morality in a form of retaliation for his teammate. 

Unfortunately for Memphis and its stars though, it didn’t come towards Draymond Green, the perpetrator of the physical acts against Clarke in Game I. Instead, Brooks double-dipped. He upheld a code while taking out the Warriors’ only plus defender against Memphis’ elite isolation scorer in Ja. The question now isn’t what will happen in Game IV when Dillion Brooks returns, but who will suffer the blow in Game III if Kerr opts to play JTA or Bjelica? Gary Payton is one of the most beloved Golden State rotation players in recent history, not only by fans but by his teammates. He has a legacy behind him with his Hall of Fame father in the Glove and ties to Bay the Area. If I was a betting man, my chips would be stacked on red and a 187 in San Francisco tomorrow if Bjelica or JTA make a first-half appearance. Unfortunately for Golden State and Memphis though, after this series, there might not be much left of either roster to deal with the Suns in the Valley with homecourt advantage.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Skip to toolbar