'Brilliant' GP2 worth the wait in Warriors' Game 2 win

SAN FRANCISCO – Gary Payton II didn’t need a pep talk or a long conversation with his Hall of Fame father about what to expect on the biggest stage in the NBA Finals. All he needed was to see what might as well be classified as “The Look” from The Glove.

You know it when you see it. It cuts to your core with a pretty simple, significant message: It’s go-time.

“He was over there in the corner with [Detlef Schrempf]”Payton said Sunday night.” He just shook his head and I said, ‘Yeah, I know what that means.’

“You know, go to work.”

That’s what Payton did the moment he entered the court with 5:30 remaining in the first quarter of Game 2 of the NBA Finals. His month-long comeback from a fractured left elbow was complete, and the 29-year-old couldn’t have been needed more in the Warriors’ 107-88 blowout win over the Celtics to even the series at one win apiece.

Payton played 25 minutes in the win, the most of any Warriors player off the bench. He scored seven points to go with three rebounds and three assists, and was a perfect 3-for-3 from the field. But the first time he touched the ball, all of Chase Center held its collective breath.

Slightly over a minute-and-a-half after he entered the game, Payton raced down the floor with an open lane and only Boston guard Jaylen Brown near him. At first glance, it looked like an easy layup or dunk for the bouncy veteran. Instead, he turned his body, Brown was called for a foul and Payton fell right on his injured left elbow.

Following the win, though, he was insistent that the fall didn’t hurt and that his adrenaline beat out any kind of pain all game long.

“Well, no. I tried to tuck-and-roll the best I could,” Payton said.

He then missed both of his free throws, and it could have gone downhill from there. Payton could have lost confidence in himself, and the same goes with Steve Kerr. The reality was far from that.

As the first quarter came to a close, Steph Curry found a wide-open Payton in the left corner near the Celtics’ bench. The lefty didn’t hesitate at all. He was 6-for-8 from long distance in the playoffs before he went down to injury.

Now, he’s 7-for-9.

“Looks pretty good, doesn’t it?” Payton said when asked about his shot.

For what a relief it had to be to see his first shot swish through the nets, it’s no secret that Payton’s main responsibility is on defense. There’s no silver lining to the injury and pain he had to endure. However, with his ailment being to an elbow instead of a knee, ankle or any other part of his lower body, Payton was able to get in plenty of defensive work while rehabbing.

Over the past three weeks, Kerr has watched Payton go through intense sprints up and down the court. He has seen him complete countless defensive slides, going 1-on-1 full court without his left hand. It’s a testament to Payton’s desire to help his teammates chase a championship, and it’s a big reason why Kerr felt comfortable giving him so many minutes after not playing since May 3.

Conditioning was the least of the coach’s worries. Still, even he couldn’t have predicted Payton’s first game back would go this well.

“He needed the extra few days to really be ready, and I thought he was brilliant,” Kerr said. “The level of defense, physicality and speed in transition – it gives us a huge boost.”

Payton is listed at 6-foot-3, but his extremely long wingspan allows him to guard multiple positions. He can lock up guards, wings and even forwards. When he first entered the game, it mirrored Celtics guard Derrick White coming in for center Robert Williams III. White didn’t score once in the first quarter, and his turnover towards the end of the period led to Steph Curry giving the Warriors a one-point lead with only 1.5 seconds left in the frame.

White scored 21 points in Boston’s Game 1 win. He scored 12 in Game 2 and was a minus-17 over 30 minutes. Payton also had the assignment of trying to pester Celtics star small forward Jayson Tatum, who stands five inches taller than him. Tatum, after scoring only 12 points two nights ago, dropped 28 on the Warriors.

He also was a game-low minus-36.

On the other side, Payton was a plus-15. Not counting the game he got hurt in, he’s now a plus-36 in seven playoff games.

“He’s a guy that’s able to defend multiple positions, and he’s able to … we are able to play small lineups with him because he’s able to rebound so well,” Warriors center Kevon Looney said. “He kind of brings a different type of energy. He springs in transition, he’s a lob threat.

“We missed him in the last series and in the first game, so having him back out there was great because he just is a disruptor. You know, he plays well out of the dunker. He just provides a lot of things that we don ‘t have. ”

RELATED: Kerr: Steph ‘breathtaking’ during Warriors’ third-quarter run

Known more for who his father is at the start of his career than his own skill set, Payton went undrafted out of Oregon State in 2016. Prior to this season with the Warriors, he never played more than 29 games in an NBA season. He grinded through the G League, including 13 games as recently as last season. Payton played only one preseason game with the Warriors this season, their fourth game of their exhibition slate, scoring 12 points along with one rebound, one steal and one block in 11 minutes.

And he still earned the Warriors’ 15th and final roster spot on the same day as the regular-season opener.

Through all his battles, all his trials and tribulations, all his uncertainties – Payton is home. Both here in the Bay Area with the Warriors, and in the Finals looking to get fitted for a championship ring, something even the original Payton never was able to pull off.

By a8okg

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