The Warriors tried a lot of different things in their 107-88 Game 2, series-evening victory over the Celtics on Sunday. They pressed up harder on shooters, particularly Al Horford and Marcus Smart, both of whom were basically dared to make open 3s in Game 1, which they did to tune of a combined 10-for-15 clip. They had Klay Thompson match up with bigs, freeing Draymond Green to get more in the line of fire defending Boston’s stars.
But the single most encouraging development for the Warriors on Sunday was the play of Gary Payton II, who after not seeing the floor in the opener ended Game 2 with seven points, three assists and three rebounds on 3-for-3 shooting. He was a plus-15 in 25 significant minutes.
Payton hasn’t played since fracturing his elbow in Game 2 of the conference semifinals against Memphis, and Steve Kerr didn’t think he was ready to go in Game 1. But he was a full go on Sunday, and while he’s surely not 100 percent, he showed that he is, without question, plenty healthy enough to be a major part of the rotation moving forward.
“I feel normal, back to myself,” Payton said. “I’m not worried about the elbow. It feels fine.”
It’s hard to overstate what having a healthy (ish) Payton means for Golden State. His return could turn this series, which is so evenly matched, in the Warriors’ favor. His impact is that significant. Anyone who has watched the Warriors, and Payton, play this season knows that’s not an exaggeration. His energy, his ball pressure, his ability to run the floor and cut to open space and function as a short-rolling playmaker (all things he displayed on Sunday) make the Warriors a more dynamic and athletic team.
Matchup-wise, Payton gives Golden State another elite defender for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Payton doesn’t have the size of Draymond Green or Andrew Wiggins, and Tatum indeed was able to hit some tough jumpers over him, but you’re not going to get anything easy on Payton. Golden State will gladly accept Tatum taking as many of these shots as his heart desires:
“I thought he was brilliant,” Kerr said of Payton. “The level of defense, physicality and speed in transition, it gives us a huge boost.”
Jordan Poole has become a conundrum 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 indeed, Payton jumped Poole in the rotation in the second half on Sunday. Poole was held out almost the entire third quarter, when Golden State, perhaps not coincidentally, turned a two-point lead into a 23-point lead and my guess is Payton would’ve been in the closing lineup over Poole had the game been close down the stretch.
Again, this changes the equation for the rest of this series. Payton in the closing lineup over Poole leaves the Celtics with only one defender to hunt in Curry, and we’re going to need to stop with this dialogue that Curry is some kind of weak link. He’s small, yes, but he is a good defender. You’re not going to get cakewalk buckets on him.
Even when Poole is playing, Payton provides perimeter support. In Game 1, Poole entered the game for Draymond. Swapping out the best defender on the team for the worst is a bright red hunting license for Boston. In Game 2, Payton entered alongside Poole, and Green stayed on the court as well. That keeps Golden State’s defense in the fight.
Payton and Green can be a menacing duo. Watch here as Payton crowds Tatum before Green flies in for the switch, a tag-team dose of pressure that leads to a turnover and Curry 3 on the other end.
Payton’s most pivotal stretch came in the second quarter. After the Warriors managed just four points in the non-Curry minutes, with Poole left as the lone creator, Payton subbed in at the 6:57 mark with Golden State down five. They immediately went on a 10-0 run, which included the sequence above as well as the one below, where Payton runs the floor and sets into a gap along the baseline.
These kinds of buckets are huge. Boston’s half-court defense is a nightmare to score against. Golden State wants to get as many transition opportunities as it can. Turnovers create those opportunities, and Payton creates turnovers. Prior to his injury, the Warriors were generating 3.3 more turnovers per 100 possessions with Payton on the floor.
All told, the Celtics committed six turnovers during Payton’s first-half minutes. He only directly caused one of them, but some of his impact, much of it even, is intangible. Payton, like Green, ignites Golden State’s defense purely on presence. Here he stonewalls Brown and forces an errant pass.
The good thing about Payton’s injury is it wasn’t an area that kept him from conditioning. Kerr told reporters that Payton was on the court three weeks ago “going 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 his immediately being granted 25 minutes of action, above his playoff average prior to the injury.
What was a concern to Kerr was whether Payton would be able to extend his left arm to shoot. It didn’t look great when Payton back-rimmed two free throws, but then he buried a corner 3, which is such a vital shot within Golden State’s offense not just to maintain reasonable spacing, but to make Boston pay when it inevitably collapses on Curry, as it did here:
“I know it was hard on him, missing the first couple free throws, and to step in there after that and knock down that three, having very little reps of shooting the basketball since that Memphis series, just shows who he is,” Green said of Payton. “That’s the reason he’s here, though. Most guys can’t step up in that situation, but GP, he’s tough and he’s built the right way and he stepped up and he gave us some good minutes tonight.”
Good minutes might be an understatement. I’d call them great. And moving forward, there are going to be plenty more available for Payton to leave his mark on this series.