How the Memphis Grizzlies became an NBA villain – and admired by the ‘Bad Boys’ Pistons

Detroit Free Press

Isiah Thomas sees the similarities most on defense. Rick Mahorn loves Dillon Brooks. A longtime Detroit beat writer compared Steven Adams to Bill Laimbeer.

The “Bad Boy” Pistons won back-to-back NBA championships in 1989 and 1990, earning their reputation through a willingness to stop opponents by any means necessary. Now, more than 30 years later, the Grizzlies have become the NBA’s latest team to be branded as a villain.

ESPN’s Jay Williams, when speaking of the Grizzlies, noted that “basketball today needs that in today’s game to remember what it’s like to not like your opponent.” Fox Sports personality Skip Bayless believes the Grizzlies want to be the modern day version of the Bad Boy Pistons.

Left unsaid, as Memphis embarks on its playoff run in a marquee first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers beginning Sunday (2 p.m., ABC), is whether this identity can bring Memphis a title like it once did Detroit.

The Grizzlies were once one of the NBA’s darlings, but a lot has changed.

Ja Morant infamously told the world that Memphis “ain’t ducking no smoke” as it climbed to the No. 2 seed and tied a franchise record with 56 wins last season. It was hailed as a signature moment in the team’s rise.

But in December, when Morant declared Memphis to be “fine in the west” during an ESPN interview, the Grizzlies were mocked for it. They’ve noticed a difference this season.

“You always get everybody’s best game. They don’t want to hear us talk trash or do what we do at the end of the game,” Dillon Brooks said. “… so that type of (villain) role kind of intensifies everything, every single game.”

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The Memphis mindset is often dictated by Brooks, who incited Golden State fans with a flagrant foul that injured Gary Payton II in last year’s playoffs. His teammates call him the heart and soul of the Grizzlies. His game is all about physicality and defense. He led the league in technical fouls this season and ranked among the top 10 in personal fouls.

Mahorn, in an interview with The Commercial Appeal, called Brooks a “throwback” who could have played on his old Pistons teams.

“I’ll go to war with him because he likes to win,” Mahorn said. “It ain’t about being friends; it’s about the win.”

In Mahorn’s case, that meant being an enforcer.

“Don’t pump fake!” he once told Atlanta Hawks star Dominique Wilkins back in the Bad Boys’ heyday. So the next time Wilkins pulled out his move, Mahorn hit him across the face and knocked him to the court.

Today, that would result in a flagrant foul and possible ejection. Back then, the Pistons called it mental intimidation. The idea was to let opponents know they couldn’t be comfortable doing whatever they wanted offensively.

Players like Brooks use a different card to do the same tricks. Oftentimes, Brooks will follow the player he’s guarding around the floor right out of a timeout, like a snake stalking prey. Brooks then pounces when the ball is put into action with intentional bumps that are just clean enough for the referee to allow play to continue.

“Defense doesn’t get the pretty labels, the pretty words,” said Thomas, the Bad Boys’ Hall of Fame point guard, as he considered the parallels between his teams and these Grizzlies.

They aren’t completely alike. Detroit didn’t talk as much as Memphis does. Memphis doesn’t use brute force the way Detroit did.

But in Morant, the Grizzlies are led by a star point guard just like Detroit with Thomas. Brooks is an elite wing defender like Joe Dumars. And Adams, like Bill Laimbeer, sets crushing screens and does his work as a rebounder.

“Steven Adams has got this stoic attitude similar to Bill Laimbeer,” Mahorn said.

The comparisons go a step further when you consider the protection Adams, likely out for the playoffs, and Laimbeer provide. Grizzlies players often say Adams is a security guard for them. When a player is involved in any type of altercation, Adams is there to step in between, like earlier this season during the Shannon Sharpe incident in Los Angeles.

“You didn’t mess with Isiah, and if you did, Laimbeer would fight anybody,” said Terry Foster, who covered the Pistons for The Detroit News from 1988-94.

This season tested the Grizzlies more than last year, and the results have been mixed heading into their first-round clash with the Lakers. There is real belief this could be a championship team.

Yet they’ve reached this point loudly, and the opportunity to quiet Morant and company is now a meaningful goal for everyone else.

They may not be the Bad Boys reincarnated, but the Bad Boys appreciate what they’re becoming.

“Memphis is making their way as a young team trying to carve out their niche in the league,” Thomas said. “They definitely stepped on the scene, and the teams in the west that have won championships, they’re definitely aware of Memphis.”

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