SAN FRANCISCO — The patrons of the Chase Center almost seemed to rise as one once Gary Payton II jumped off the bench and headed for the scorer’s table, but he had to wait a little longer before showing up at the NBA Finals.
“He kind of faked me at first,” Payton joked of Warriors head coach Steve Kerr.
A month and two days after fracturing his left elbow in Memphis, a few more seconds didn’t hurt so bad. After all, he felt ready for Game 1 on Thursday night, but Kerr felt comfortable using him only in an emergency.
Game 2 was the emergency, in a way.
“It was frustrating to know that I could come in 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 anxious, ready to go out.
Payton represents a necessary layer for the Warriors. What they lack in pure goalscorers they make up for with dynamic wings that manufacture productivity with energy. And Payton was so impatient that he did a mid-air lay-up because his body seemed to be moving faster than usual.
Thankfully, he was bailed out by a touch foul from Jaylen Brown – which would have marred a perfect night on the pitch: 3-on-3, including a corner three that seemed to surprise everyone on the Celtics bench.
“Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?” Payton wondered aloud about his shot.
“I was worried he couldn’t reach out and shoot the ball, but he knocked down that three,” Kerr said. “So he needed a few extra days to be really ready, and I thought he was brilliant. The level of defence, the physicality and the speed of transition, that gives us a huge boost.
Considering the injury, it looked like he would be reluctant to take shots from distance besides shooting very far down the list of his attractive qualities.
But fearlessness is the first word in his biography, so if he had to be bold, he would be bold – after a career-high 35% shooting season in three, reaching 43 in 71 games.
He even had a jaw-dropping fall on that same elbow that left many wondering if he would join Andre Iguodala on the ‘back for a day then back to IR’ list. Fortunately, Dillon Brooks was nowhere to be found and no code breaking was part of the post-match discussion.
“I tried to get in and ride as best I could,” Payton said.
He speaks deliberately, his charm less in the volume of words but in the space he leaves with silence. Nothing to do with his father, the Hall of Famer who sat at the edge of the court.
But his value was evident from the moment he entered, a value the Warriors recognized in the only preseason game he played before choosing him over veteran Avery Bradley. It paid off, sure, but Payton paid for it with hard work – one of the best individual defenders in the league.
It will probably also pay off in a tangible way in the summer; he deserves a raise after overstating his salary by $1.9 million this season. In the immediate future, it is a necessary intangible.
“We were pretty soft in the first game,” Payton said. “And that was our priority coming out of that game and just being aggressive and playing Warriors basketball that we know how to play and be defensive, locked in our missions and know our personnel.”
His aggressiveness and activity allow him to call Game 1 play “soft” without being insulting to more veteran teammates. In this series, they’ll probably need the best of him in this style-do-fight series.
The worst of the Celtics falls at the hands of the Warriors: general neglect with the game’s most prized object, leading to quick threes and quicker timeouts.
Payton will hide under Brown and Jayson Tatum’s personal space, even though he is generously listed at 6ft 3in. Maybe the Warriors will put it on Marcus Smart and give him a taste of his own annoyance.
With the Celtics’ dynamic offense present, Payton is more needed in this series than even against Luka Doncic in the final round.
He seems ready for the added responsibility.