NBA Finals: What Gary Payton II's return means for Warriors against Celtics

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SAN FRANCISCO — The patrons at Chase Center almost seemed to rise as one once Gary Payton II leapt off the bench and walked to the scorer’s table, but he had to wait a little longer before introducing himself to the NBA Finals.

“He kind of pump-faked me at first,” Payton jokingly said of Warriors head coach Steve Kerr.

One month and two days after fracturing his left elbow in Memphis, a few more seconds didn’t feel so bad. After all, he felt he was ready for Game 1 on Thursday night, but Kerr felt comfortable using him only in an emergency situation.

Game 2 was the emergency, in a sense.

“It was frustrating, knowing that I could come out there and help my teammates,” Payton said. “It’s been frustrating since the injury. Last week I knew I was very close, so it was just anticipation and just antsy, ready to get out there.”

Payton represents a necessary layer to the Warriors. What they lack in pure scorers, they compensate with dynamic wings who manufacture productivity with energy. And Payton was so eager, he blew an open-court layup because his body seemed to be moving faster than natural.

Luckily, he was bailed out by a Jaylen Brown touch foul — which would’ve sullied a perfect night from the field: 3 for 3, including a corner three that seemed to surprise everyone on the Celtics bench.

“Looks pretty good, doesn’t it?” Payton wondered aloud about his shot.

Golden State Warriors guard Gary Payton II reacts after a play during the first quarter against the Boston Celtics during Game 2 of the 2022 NBA Finals at Chase Center in San Francisco on June 5, 2022. (Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports)
Golden State Warriors guard Gary Payton II reacts after a play during the first quarter against the Boston Celtics during Game 2 of the 2022 NBA Finals at Chase Center in San Francisco on June 5, 2022. (Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports)

“I was worried about just him being able to extend his arm and shoot the ball, but he knocked that three down,” Kerr said. “So he needed the extra few days to really be ready, and I thought he was brilliant. The level of defense, physicality and speed in transition, it gives us a huge boost.”

Considering the injury, it seemed like he would be reticent on taking shots from distance in addition to shooting being far down the list of his attractive qualities.

But fearlessness is the first word in his bio, so if he was going to be dared, he would be daring — following a season of shooting a career-high 35% from three, hitting 43 in 71 games.

He even had a heart-stopping fall on that same elbow that had more than a few wondering if he would join Andre Iguodala on the “back for a day then back to the IR” list. Luckily, Dillon Brooks was nowhere to be found, and no code breaking was part of the postgame discussion.

“I tried to tuck and roll best I could,” Payton said.

He speaks deliberately, his charm less in the volume of words but in the space he leaves through silence. Nothing like his father, the Hall of Famer who sat courtside.

But his value was evident upon his entrance, a value the Warriors recognized in the one preseason game he played before choosing him over veteran Avery Bradley. It has paid off, certainly, but Payton paid it in hard work — one of the league’s best one-on-one defenders.

It’ll probably pay off tangibly in the summer, too; he’s due a raise after overplaying his $1.9 million salary this season. In the immediate present, he’s a necessary intangible.

“We were kind of soft in the first game,” Payton said. “And that was our emphasis coming out this game and just being aggressive and playing the Warriors basketball we know how to play and being on defense, locked into our assignments and knowing our personnel.”

His aggression and activity allows him to call Game 1’s play “soft” without it being insulting to the more veteran teammates. In this series, they’ll probably need the best of him in this styles-make-fights series.

The worst of the Celtics falls right into the Warriors’ hands: a general sloppiness with the game’s most treasured object, leading to quick threes and quicker timeouts.

Payton will tuck himself underneath the personal space of Brown and Jayson Tatum, even though he’s generously listed at 6-foot-3. Maybe the Warriors will put him on Marcus Smart and give him a taste of his own annoyance.

With the dynamic attack the Celtics present, Payton is more necessary in this series than even against Luka Doncic last round.

He seems ready for the extra responsibility.

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