NBA Finals 2022: Warriors get a big boost from Gary Payton II, whose return could justifiably make this series swing


NBA Finals 2022: Warriors get a big boost from Gary Payton II, whose return could justifiably make this series swing

The Warriors tried many different things in their 107-88 Game 2, Sunday night’s series win over the Celtics. They pressed harder on shooters, particularly Al Horford and Marcus Smart, both of whom were basically dared to open 3s in Game 1, which they did to the tune of a 10v15 combo clip. They lined up Klay Thompson against Bigs and freed Draymond Green to get more in the firing line to defend Boston’s stars.

But the most encouraging development for the Warriors on Sunday was the game of Gary Payton II, who finished Game 2 with seven points, three assists and three rebounds on 3-on-3 shooting after failing to see the floor in the first set. He was a plus-15 in 25 significant minutes.

Payton hasn’t played since breaking his elbow in Game 2 of the Conference Semifinals against Memphis, and Steve Kerr didn’t think he was ready to go into Game 1. But on Sunday he was in full swing, and while he’s certainly not 100 percent, he showed that he’s unquestionably healthy enough to be an important part of the rotation moving forward.

“I feel normal, back to myself,” Payton said. “I’m not worried about the elbow. It feels good.”

It’s hard to overstate what a healthy payton means for Golden State. His return could turn this evenly balanced series in the Warriors’ favour. That’s how significant his influence is. Anyone who’s watched the Warriors and Payton this season knows that’s no exaggeration. His energy, ball pressure, ability to run the ground and slice into open space and act as a short-rolling playmaker (all things he showed on Sunday) make the Warriors a more dynamic and athletic team.

Pair-wise, Payton gives Golden State another elite defender for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Payton isn’t the size of Draymond Green or Andrew Wiggins, and Tatum was actually able to smash some tough jumpers over him, but you’re not going to make it easy for Payton. Golden State happily accepts Tatum taking as many of these shots as his heart desires:

“I thought he was brilliant,” Kerr said of Payton. “The level of defence, the physicality and the speed of switching give us a huge boost.”

Jordan Poole has become an enigma in this series. He was a turnstile on defense in Game 1 and not much better on offense. Payton gives Kerr a Poole alternative, and sure enough, Payton jumped Sunday in the second-half rotation against Poole. Poole was held out for most of the third quarter as Golden State, perhaps not coincidentally, turned a two-point lead into a 23-point lead, and I’m guessing Payton would have been over Poole in the final lineup had the game been close would be down the track.

Again, this changes the equation for the rest of this series. Payton in the final lineup over Poole leaves the Celtics with just one defender in Curry and we need to stop this dialogue that Curry is kind of a weak link. He’s small, yes, but he’s a good defender. You won’t give him a cakewalk.

Even when Poole is playing, Payton offers perimeter support. In Game 1, Poole came on for Draymond. Swapping the best defender on the team for the worst is a bright red Boston hunting license. In Game 2, Payton stepped in alongside Poole, and Green also stayed on the court. That keeps Golden State’s defense in the fight.

Payton and Green can be a menacing duo. Watch Payton push Tatum before Green flies in for a change, a tag team dose of pressure resulting in a turnover and Curry 3 on the other end.

Payton’s most important stretch came in the second quarter. With the Warriors scoring just four points in the non-curry minutes and Poole the lone creator left, Payton traded back by five at the 6:57 mark with Golden State. They immediately went on a 10-0 run that included both the sequence above and below, in which Payton runs across the floor and settles into a gap along the baseline.

These types of buckets are huge. Boston’s halffield defense is a nightmare to score against. Golden State wants to preserve as many transition opportunities as possible. Revenue creates those opportunities, and Payton creates revenue. Before his injury, the Warriors were making 3.3 more turnovers per 100 possessions with Payton on the floor.

All told, the Celtics committed six turnovers in Payton’s first half. He caused only one of them directly, but some of his effects, many of them in fact, are intangible. Payton, like Green, only ignites the Golden State’s defenses through presence. Here he bricks Brown and forces a faulty pass.

The good thing about Payton’s injury is that it wasn’t an area that kept him from conditioning. Kerr told reporters that three weeks ago Payton was on the court “to go through intense defensive slides and sprints and one-on-one full court without using his left arm,” and you saw that level of conditioning in that he was immediately granted 25 minutes of action, above his pre-injury playoff average.

Kerr was concerned if Payton would be able to extend his left arm to shoot. Things didn’t look good as Payton edged two free throws back, but then he buried a corner 3, which is such an important shot on Golden State’s offense not only to keep reasonable distance, but to make Boston pay for it , when it inevitably collapses curry like this:

“I know it was hard for him to miss the first couple of free throws and after that to step in and put those three down as he’s had very few shooting basketball reps since that Memphis series just shows who he is,” said Green said by Payton. “But that’s why he’s here. Most guys can’t get up in this situation but GP, he’s tough and he’s built the right path and he’s stepped up and given us some good minutes tonight. “

Good minutes might be an understatement. I would call them great. And there will be many more for Payton to make his mark on this series in the future.

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