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January 22, 2023

SAN FRANCISCO — Gary Payton II didn’t need a pep talk or a lengthy chat with his Hall of Fame dad about what to expect on the grand finale stage of the NBA. All he needed was to see what might as well be classified as “The Look” by The Glove.

You know it when you see it. It goes straight to the point with a fairly simple and meaningful message: it’s time to go.

“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 as he entered the court with 5:30 to go in the first quarter of Game 2 of the NBA Finals. His month-long comeback from a broken left elbow was complete, and the 29-year-old couldn’t have been more needed in the Warriors’ resounding 107-88 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-on-3 from the field. But the first time he touched the ball, the entire Chase Center held their collective breath.

Just over a minute and a half into the game, Payton ran on 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 rebounding veteran. Instead, he spun his body, Brown was called for a foul, and Payton fell straight to his injured left elbow.

After the win, however, he insisted the fall didn’t hurt and his adrenaline was beating any kind of pain throughout the match.

“No, no. I tried to do 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 faith in himself, and the same goes for Steve Kerr. The reality was far from it.

Late in the first quarter, Steph Curry found a wide open Payton in the left corner near the Celtics bench. The left-hander did not hesitate at all. He was 6 for 8 from long distance in the playoffs before getting injured.

Now it’s 7 for 9.

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

What a relief it must have been to see his first shot through the net, it’s no secret that Payton’s primary responsibility is defence. There is no good side to the injury and pain he had to endure. However, with his illness being tied to an elbow instead of a knee, ankle or any other part of his lower body, Payton was able to do a lot of defensive work during his rehabilitation.

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

Conditioning was the least of the trainer’s worries. Still, even he couldn’t have predicted that Payton’s first game would go so well.

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

Payton is listed at 6-foot-3, but his extremely long wingspan allows him to hold multiple positions. He can lock down guards, wings, and even attackers. 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 late in the period led to Steph Curry giving the Warriors a one-point lead with just 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 17 under in 30 minutes. Payton was also on a mission to try and harass Celtics star small forward Jayson Tatum, who is five inches taller than him. Tatum, after scoring just 12 points two nights ago, lost 28 to the Warriors.

He was also a game-low minus-36.

On the other side, Payton was a plus-15. Not counting the game in which he was injured, he now has a plus-36 differential in seven playoff games.

“He’s a guy who’s able to defend multiple positions, and he’s able to…we’re able to play small formations 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 Game 1, so having him back there was great because he’s just a disruptor. You know, he plays well out of the dunk. He just provides a lot of things that we give I have none.”

RELATED: Kerr: Steph ‘Breathtaking’ During Warriors Third Quarter Run

Known more for who his father is early in his career than for his own skills, Payton was not drafted from Oregon State in 2016. Prior to this season with the Warriors, he had never played more of 29 games in an NBA season. He’s been through the G League, including 13 games as recently as last season. Payton has played in just one preseason game for the Warriors this season, their fourth game on their exhibition roster, scoring 12 points with a rebound, steal and block in 11 minutes.

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

Through all of his battles, all of his trials and tribulations, all of his uncertainties, Payton is home. Both here in the Bay Area with the Warriors and in the Finals looking to set up for a championship ring, something even the original Payton could never pull off.

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