The stage has been set. Preparations for the 2022 NBA Playoffs have officially begun for the Memphis Grizzlies, now that their first round opponent is known. The Minnesota Timberwolves see themselves as a rival with the Grizzlies. Two young teams, two underappreciated head coaches, two markets that tend to fly under the national NBA radar, plus a splash of Patrick Beverley feeling slighted by Memphis after the trade that sent him from the Grizzlies to Minnesota in exchange for Jarrett Culver (and his expiring contract that Memphis did not opt in to). There’s tension there, and tension plus passion and hunger often leads to a fun postseason series.
But this article isn’t just about the Minnesota Timberwolves. Because no disrespect to them, but they are the #7 seed in the Western Conference Playoffs. The Grizzlies are #2, and 10 regular season games better, than Minnesota, even with Memphis being without Ja Morant for 24 of the 82 games this season. While a Timberwolves upset is possible, it is improbable. The record, the sharks out in Vegas (Memphis is a -330 series favorite, only behind the Bucks at -1000 among currently established series), your eyes if you’ve watched this team smash records all season long...the Grizzlies are, and should be, heavily favored to win.
They don’t play the games in casinos or betting apps, however. Memphis still needs to perform. Assuming they do - as they have for 75% of the season - at a championship level, the Grizzlies are about to embark on their first playoff run of this era. But it will take some remarkable contributions for that to come to be, starting with this weekend.
Here is the number that will play a massive role in what the Grizzlies will be able to do this postseason.
The picture above is the most recent photograph in our system here at SB Nation/GBB that features both Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant in uniform actively participating in a basketball game for the Memphis Grizzlies. It is from this past November. The several pictures that came after were of them in street clothes, specifically Dillon. Brooks has only played in 885 minutes this season - his fewest since the 2018-2019 campaign - and there’s no denying the tenacity and energy he brings to this Memphis Grizzlies roster. It translated last postseason as well - across 7 games last year (2 play-in, 5 playoffs) Dillon scored 23.8 points per game on 47.8% shooting (only 29.6% from three however) while also snagging 4.3 rebounds and dishing out 2.4 assists per game.
This was done all while maintaining an important role as a defensive force of nature, trying to check the at-times-uncheckable Donovan Mitchell. And Mitchell is admittedly a tough cover for Dillon - undersized guards that are quick and have a good handle are hard for the 6’7” Brooks to hang with.
But the two main wings Minnesota has, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell, are 6’4” and not quite the combination of quick/explosive/elite ball handlers that Mitchell is. And neither of them have had to deal with the defensive energy or offensive usage of Brooks this season - Dillon missed all four games with Minnesota, a season series that split 2-2.
That’s not to say Dillon is perfect, or even the X-Factor in this series in particular. Brooks can take too many shots at times, and his shooting attempts will often mean less efficient or out of rhythm opportunities that lead to wasted offense for a team that can’t afford it. We mentioned how he struggles in spots defensively as well - Edwards is an elite athlete, and Russell has a bag of skills at his disposal offensively. They may not combine it all like Mitchell does (for now - Edwards is young) but they can lead Brooks to foul trouble and limited impact in their own right.
But it is to say that his presence solves some problems in this series specifically and beyond.
Dillon Brooks can let Ja Morant hide more defensively. Ziaire Williams didn’t shy away from tough defensive assignments when he started. But with Brooks back in the fold, Dillon will take the biggest threat offensively as determined by the coaching staff on the perimeter, meaning Desmond Bane can take whichever of Edwards or Russell that Dillon doesn’t draw the assignment for, or Patrick Beverley (if Memphis wants to make things tougher for Minnesota in transition defense if PatBev is trying to stick Morant). Ziaire got out of place at times and missed rotations. That’s unlikely to occur with Dillon.
As long as foul trouble can be avoided (he throughout his career has had issues with being too physical at the point of attack) Memphis should be much better defensively against Minnesota and others. Opposing offenses score 4.4 less points per game with Brooks on the floor - 82nd percentile this season - and he’s hovered right around that number his entire career. The Timberwolves haven’t had to deal with that level of defensive production from the Grizzlies yet this season. That’s about to change.
Dillon Brooks can help the halfcourt offense. Brooks is more than capable of creating his own shot off the dribble. Dillon (in admittedly limited action, almost 900 minutes) was only assisted on 54% of his made shots this season, placing him in the 86th percentile among wings. For comparison’s sake, Ziaire Williams has had 88% of his buckets assisted this season. That means Ziaire was far more dependent on creation of passing from others around him than Dillon will be, and this creativity will enable Brooks to impact defensive sets from the Timberwolves.
With the emergence of Desmond Bane - who was just a role player last year but is a Most Improved Player candidate now - that gives the Grizzlies three perimeter players in the starting lineup that can all make their own offense, plus the unicorn Jaren Jackson Jr. who is no slouch off the dribble in his own right. Last season Memphis scored 5.7 points more per 100 possessions with Brooks on the floor, and this year the number is 3.7. No offense to Ziaire Williams, but DB is a superior player at this stage of their respective careers. That ability to use size and strength, along with body positioning and a stronger-than-expected penetration handle, will do wonders for the Memphis halfcourt offense. They’re 2.4 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt with him on the floor. With Ziaire, the number is only 1.6. That .8 can make the difference between winning and losing a series over the span of several games.
Dillon Brooks will bring confident energy. Former Memphis Grizzlies guard Patrick Beverley (does it count if he never played for the team? Maybe not) has been a nearly perfect fit for the Timberwolves. In terms of actually playing basketball Beverley is maybe the 4th or 5th best guard on their roster - his 24.5% assist percentage this season seems to be an outlier compared to most of his career, and he still turns the ball over at a relatively high rate while not shooting as well as others on Minnesota’s roster.
But his defensive audacity is noted for its physicality, and the mentality the team has taken on coinciding with Beverley’s arrival is not a coincidence. He deserves credit for that. Brooks will also be able to reestablish that intensity for the Grizzlies and match the reckless confidence that the Timberwolves will surely be brandishing. DB will surely not shy away from any confrontations or big spots in games. He will take on the toughest assignments. He will hold himself and his teammates accountable. While this is Ja Morant’s team, Dillon Brooks throughout the last three years has made and taken moments of impact.
The sample size is large enough to tell us that will continue for this series and probably beyond.
There are many reasons Dillon Brooks’ presence will mean so much for a Grizzlies team that didn’t have him much this season. He enables the Grizzlies to be the best version of themselves rotation wise, with Ziaire Williams in a specific reserve role and players like Tyus Jones being able to anchor 2nd units instead of starting ones. He lightens the load of Ja Morant on both ends of the floor, and if he’s willing to continue his passing renaissance (his 14.7% assist percentage is easily the best of his career, as is his career-low 8.2% turnover percentage) that will only further maximize the improvement of the likes of Desmond Bane and De’Anthony Melton as scorers/shooters.
But beyond all the basketball realities, he makes the Memphis Grizzlies whole again. Multiple times throughout this new era of Grizzlies basketball Dillon Brooks has been given credit for bring a spiritual leader of sorts, someone whose unconquerable belief in himself can at times appear selfish, but more often than not is setting things up for Memphis to be in a position to make winning plays. As he returns to form, ensuring that he plays within himself will be vital. His energy will be most welcome on the defensive end - things do not need to be forced offensively. But Dillon is savvy and sees what the Grizzlies need both outside and in the game - and has the experience and skill needed alongside that self-confidence to make all the difference in the series ahead.
Without Dillon Brooks, these Grizzlies would be in for a hell of a fight with the Timberwolves.
With Dillon Brooks?
Minnesota, and the Western Conference’s best, are in for a hell of a fight from Memphis.