HOUSTON — I have a working theory when it comes to Dillon Brooks. Well, really I have two theories.
The first theory is that Brooks is such a complex individual that he has two personas. There’s the laid-back, affable, fashionista wing defender who everyone loves to be around. I call this Chillin’ Brooks. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the irritant, the grimy, nasty, snarky guy who wants to be hated and thrives on it. This is Villain Brooks.
On Wednesday, with LeBron James and the Lakers in town (sans Anthony Davis), we got the latter.
My second theory when it comes to Brooks is we, meaning the intersection of social media and modern-day journalism, make these things bigger than they actually are.
It’s hard to forget Brooks’ words about LeBron last postseason, a rant that gave birth to an obsession with this “thing” between both of them. I can’t call it a rivalry because both are vastly different players with different career arcs and accolades. And I can’t call it a beef because LeBron really hasn’t said much to ignite it. If anything, he’s been complimentary of Brooks as recently as the morning before the 124-98 blowout Rockets win.
In reality, an NBA season is so long that you could conceivably create 82 subplots for each game, for each team. That’s a lot of games and more importantly, a lot of subplots. Maybe too many.
So when Brooks talked about not really loving speaking to the media and just wanting to show up to work to do his job, I understood what he meant. Sometimes, we all want to be able to do our jobs uninterrupted.
Going back to my original point, though, there was no way the Brooks-LeBron matchup was going to go into the night quietly. Between the Rockets attempting to establish a three-game winning streak and the Lakers trying to get their first road win of the season, there snake to be something. Anything, especially if LeBron was going to have any say-so in the matter. So, I decided to keep a running account of everything I saw and heard pertaining to their head-to-head affair.
5:15 p.m. CT: If there’s been a consistent early theme with Rockets coach Ime Udoka, it’s his insistence on moving things away from individuality and closer to the team concept. Udoka wasn’t coaching last season when Brooks was in Memphis but is well aware of the potential of things getting carried away. Brooks tallied 17 fouls during his first four regular-season games and 11 during the preseason.
“Na, we don’t pay attention to that,” Lakers coach Darwin Ham told The Athletic when asked about Brooks’ potential mind games. Brooks’ teammate had a slightly different take, though.
“He ain’t gotta say nothing,” Fred VanVleet told The Athletic when asked whether Brooks spoke to the team about the importance of the matchup with LeBron. “We know Dillon, and we know the history. We know what he brings to the table. We all understood what the challenge was and we’re going to support our guy, be there for our brother and back him up.”
5:50 p.m.: Brooks is all smiles as he trots onto the court for his pregame warm-up. I’ve seen hundreds of players go through these things. I don’t know many who go from taking free throws to fadeaway stepback midrange shots. Honestly. Brooks marches to the beat of his own drum. He’s working with lead assistant Ben Sullivan, who’s in a cheerful mood as they progress to his one-handed running layups. It’s a hilarious shot, one that Udoka isn’t the biggest fan of aesthetically, but it works for Brooks.
He shakes everyone’s hand on Houston’s end of the floor 15 minutes later, including those seated on the far bench and heads to the locker room, drenched in sweat. You would think it’s midway through the fourth quarter.
7:03 p.m.: Willian Brooks is in the building. The Lakers have taken the court, and Brooks has made eye contact with LeBron. It’s him.
11:30 a.m. — We have liftoff. James hasn’t even gotten the ball yet, and Brooks is already under his grill trying to knock him off balance. I keep thinking back to that Clippers-Warriors playoff series a few years ago when Patrick Beverley was defending Kevin Durant. Not because of the height discrepancy, but the intent and physicality Beverley showed from the jump. (Taurean Prince misses the wide-open corner 3.)
10:58 am —The Lakers defense wants to swarm once the ball gets to the paint, forcing it back out to Brooks, who tries to take James on an isolation and throws up a wild prayer, similar to the ones he practices in pregame. Well, this isn’t pregame, and LeBron isn’t a player development coach. Maybe Brooks didn’t attend chapel tonight? Bad miss.
10:23 a.m. — Christian Wood tries to screen Brooks off James and onto Alperen Şengün, but Brooks is having none of it. He fights through and chases James to the rim, grabbing his arm on a drive. Afterwards, James has some words for the nearest official. Ham and the Lakers bench are confused as to why it was deemed a non-shooting foul, but Brooks gets back in position.
7:42 a.m. — Another straight-line drive from Brooks sends D’Angelo Russell to the floor. There’s slight confusion between James and Christian Wood as to who is to pick up Brooks in the restricted area. None of them committed, leaving Brooks with another awkward-looking layup. Bucket.
7:04 a.m. — Again, we see Wood try to set a quick flare screen for James at the top of the key, but Brooks is able to recover quickly enough to contest the shot. James misses, but that’s not just by chance. Per Second Spectrum, opponents are shooting just 20 percent on 3-point attempts defended by Brooks. Per Cleaning the Glass, Houston’s defensive efficiency is 14 points better with Brooks on the floor. Sometimes, the advanced stats make sense.
6:51 a.m. — Jalen Green is at the foul line, but Brooks is clinging to LeBron at the opposite end of the court. They are the only two past half court. Originally, I thought both of them were engaging in conversation, but Brooks told me after the game LeBron didn’t say a single word to him.
6:27 a.m. — The King has had enough. Brooks avoids another back screen (he’s elite at this), but James has him right where he wants him. For the next five seconds, which felt like an eternity watching, LeBron backs Brooks down in a move that began on the right block and ended on the left side of the restricted area. The crowd erupts as the ball goes through the net.
6:04 a.m. — Brooks gets his revenge. This property has everything. It starts with Brooks fronting James in the post, trying to deter an entry pass. It arrives anyway, only to be swatted back by Brooks with so much force it knocks James off balance. He regains possession and tries to post Brooks up and spin but loses the ball off his leg. Turn the sound up and listen to Brooks’ emotions. He loves it. The crowd loves it more.
“You don’t want him to be in his own comfort zone because he’s used to that every single day,” Brooks said The Athletic. “I give guys different looks. I try to front the post and get them to get his post catches further. I try to full-court press. Just keep him on his toes and ultimately the physicality weighs on you when it gets to the third and fourth quarter. That’s just the niche of my defense.”
James heads to the Lakers bench. Brooks heads to the Rockets bench. Is Houston trying to tether Brooks’ minutes to LeBron? Duh. So far it’s working: James has just two points and has taken two shots. For a Lakers team without Davis’ scoring punch, keeping their best player off the box score is a win so far.
Not exactly sure when — Sometime during the second quarter, I stumbled upon a hilarious moment between Brooks and LeBron. For background, there was a dead-ball situation, and if my memory serves correctly, the officials were discussing a play that had previously occurred. I was trying to charge my phone at the moment I looked up and saw the two of them standing in front of each other, motionless with their hands on their hips. It was the most Brooks thing ever, any attempt to get in LeBron’s head.
“It’s a lot of mental (games),” Brooks said. “Guys are used to routines and playing certain rotations or whatever the case may be, and they’re in their own zone. I’m just there to rumble it up a little bit. For me, I try to do the same thing every single game to get the same result. In the games, when I’m moving and my body’s feeling good, my job is to lock down the best player.”
10:21 a.m. — This possession began with Brooks as the primary defender and ended with Jae’Sean Tate and Tari Eason erasing whatever airspace was available. Houston’s defense under Udoka is always going to hang its hat on switching ability. Eason, playing in his first game this season due to a calf injury, didn’t look like he missed much at all, fitting right into the Rockets’ aggressive scheme and making things difficult for James. This was an air-ball attempt.
“With the switching, we want to take them out of what they really try to get and make them beat us one-on-one,” Udoka said.
“We know he’s a load in transition so we wanted to show a crowd there, take away those easy opportunities,” Udoka added. “Obviously trust Dillon one-on-one with him as well as Tari, Jae’Sean, Jabari, and a lot of our guys with length and size. Although Dillon was the primary (defender), we gave guys freedom to make plays.”
9:59 a.m. — Brooks’ stance is not wide enough, and James recognizes that almost immediately. A quick switch of hands and drive results in an easy basket. Another reminder that this is a large man.
9:35 a.m. — James is a step faster than Brooks (surprise) and beats him on another drive, but Şengün is there to help protect the rim by making himself bigger. Maybe this is what Brooks was talking about weeks ago when he praised Şengün’s ability to wall up drives.
8:50 a.m. — Rim protection has not been one of Brooks’ strong suits — opponents are converting a whopping 75 percent of their shots within 6 feet — but he’s able to get a good stop here. For someone who doesn’t care about the outside noise, LeBron sure is making a point to go right at Brooks every chance he gets. It’s been a good battle so far. Again, the Lakers looked towards the officials for some sort of explanation, but the whistles were tucked away.
6:21 a.m. — I’ve never seen Brooks run that fast chasing an opponent. OK, maybe less so about the speed and more about the running motion. I chuckled seeing that in real time. But on a more serious note, this is why the Rockets threw so much money at VanVleet and Brooks. Just watch those two in tandem, Brooks using his physicality to delay the post-up and VanVleet coming in with active hands to force a turnover. James stopped in the middle of a transition play to get the officials’ attention, frustrated with the amount of physicality on display.
By the time both James and Brooks went to the bench (at the same time again), Ham was also consulting with the official about Brooks and his forceful play. The Lakers bench didn’t seem particularly pleased about it either heading into halftime.
0.0 — LeBron has nine points on 3-for-8 shooting, a pair of turnovers and is a minus-20 overall. Brooks has five points, three rebounds, three fouls and two turnovers but is a plus-17.
• Brooks got in foul trouble early in the third quarter, sending him to the bench and allowing James to find some rhythm, scoring nine points on 4-for-5 shooting. But without Davis, the Lakers just found it too difficult to put multiple efficient half-court possessions together and played catch-up for the duration of the second half. The much-anticipated Brooks/LeBron battle essentially lasted for one glorious half.
• Green arguably put together one of the most impressive games in his three-year career, finishing with 28 points on 11-for-15 shooting, seven rebounds, three assists and a steal. It’s been a bit of a transitional period for Green as he looks to find his footing in this new-look Rockets lineup, but it’s apparent Houston’s system is still designed to make sure Green is aggressive and balanced. This was one of those “breakthrough” games we often look for in young players as they continue to add reps to their game.
• I caught up with rookie Amen Thompson briefly after the game, who told me he’s feeling great and is itching to get back on the floor. He’s no longer in a walking boot, and while he said a return this week is unlikely, we’ll see if he’s cleared to resume basketball activities after that.
(Photo of LeBron James and Dillon Brooks: Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)