SAN FRANCISCO — Gary Payton II isn’t on the floor to shoot. Because of this, the journeyman with impeccable defensive skill has found a perfect home sharing the court with basketball’s all-time greatest shooters.
Any scoring from Payton would be a welcome bonus, not necessarily a requirement.
But with the Warriors down seven in the fourth, facing a possible Game 6 on the road, it was Payton’s timely 3-point shooting that helped deliver the Warriors a 102-98 win on Wednesday night to clinch this first round series against Denver.
“He showed everything in his bag tonight,” Klay Thompson said. “In the playoffs, you need guys to step up. And it was Gary’s night.”
Payton needed just two shots to make his mark. The first came with Golden State on the precipice of closing in on the Nuggets lead — Otto Porter Jr., mugged by DeMarcus Cousins on one corner, hurled a cross-court pass to Payton, wide open on the other corner.
Payton didn’t hesitate, hitting the three that awoke a Chase Center crowd begging for something to cheer. The Warriors had a 86-84 lead and a new life with seven minutes remaining.
The second 3 was a dagger. With just over a minute remaining and Denver trailing by two, Draymond Green passed up a wide-open layup under the basket to find Payton II beyond the arc from the wing. After a little fumble, swish.
In the fourth quarter alone, Payton scored 10 points with those two big 3-pointers.
Payton was “unfazed,” as coach Steve Kerr said, by the moment. A thread Kerr pulled early in the game when the Warriors looked just listless enough to let Denver extend the series.
With Andre Iguodala out with a neck injury and Jordan Poole in foul trouble, Kerr opted to play Payton for the entire fourth quarter. Hardened by a long, uncertain road through the league, Payton was just the right guy to handle a little playoff pressure.
“I guess when you’ve bounced around like he has,” Kerr said. “Been in the G-League, played on ten-day contracts, never really found a home, there’s a lot more pressure in that then there is in playing in a high-stakes game.”
Payton’s defense has earned him this moment. The son of “The Glove” Gary Payton — nicknamed for suffocating defensive skills that bottled up the likes of Michael Jordan during his storied 13-year NBA career — Payton is making his own name his in the same vein. But composure under pressure may be genetic.
Payton’s defense in the fourth quarter helped Warriors re-establish their pace. Denver’s physicality with Nikola Jokic threw Golden State into disarray in the first half, and next to Draymond Green, Payton’s hands and agility in a zone defense prompted some key stops that got them back in a flow.
Payton got his longest run in the clincher, but he made his presence felt in limited minutes during the first three games. The 6-foot-3 point guard blocked 6-foot-11 Jokic at the rim twice — in Game 1 and 2.
“He was making his presence felt, bringing a lot of energy and athleticism,” Curry said. “He had a lot of defensive awareness and impact so you knew he was capable of doing that. But it’s also the unknown of this group being in this situation or the first time, playoffs bring the best and worst out of you. Look at his impact his this series — the first two games he played a little bit, but it was n’t like tonight.”
The NBA world is in agreement that the Warriors’ clincher was Gary’s night. Soon after the Warriors’ win, LeBron James tweeted that Payton should be awarded the game ball. After the final buzzer sounded, Payton’s dad was already courtside to greet the player of the game — “just to say what’s up,” Payton said.