Warriors’ Gary Payton II finally gets his playoff moment

DENVER — Warriors head coach Steve Kerr walked into the infamous three-guard formation five minutes into the first quarter in Golden State’s 118-113 win over the Nuggets in Game 3 . When the team was outscored 14-7 over the next 2:30, Kerr replaced Klay Thompson for Otto Porter Jr. and Andrew Wiggins for Gary Payton II.

At this point, Golden State needed a defensive spark. This has been Payton’s role throughout the season. He’s the guy Kerr can always count on at this end of the field. But Payton didn’t just deliver defensively in Game 3, he also shone offensively, as he finished with 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting, all in the first half at a critical moment.

The 6-foot-3 Payton was an NBA journeyman through his first six seasons in the league before finally finding a home with Golden State ahead of the 2020-21 season. Now in his second season with the Warriors, he has gradually become more than just a role player.

This season, Payton was among the league leaders in steals (he averaged 1.4 per game during the regular season) despite playing just 17.6 minutes a night off the court. bench, and he shot a team-best 61% from the field. His development should bolster his market value when he reaches unrestricted free agency this summer, something the Warriors will have to address. But for now, Golden State is just thrilled that Payton’s defense, versatility and timely shooting made him an X-factor in the playoffs.

Golden State Warriors guard Gary Payton II (0) in the second half of Game 3 of an NBA Western Conference first-round basketball playoff series Thursday, April 21, 2022 in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Payton hadn’t played in a playoff series up to that point. He was waiting for an opportunity to make an impact on the league’s biggest stage. Game 3 in Denver was the Young Glove’s first defining moment. And that was all he hoped it would be.

“Just the intensity, the atmosphere, the level of play,” Payton said. “It’s just playoff basketball, I’ve watched it all my life. … So just being here, it’s crazy.

The score was 22-22 when Payton arrived with 4:29 left in the first quarter. On the subsequent possession, Stephen Curry found it in the left corner where he knocked down his first 3-pointer. Minutes later, Payton made a tough defensive rebound off Nuggets star Nikola Jokic, then he sprinted across the floor like an athletic forward and Curry tracked him down, this time for an easy lay-up to give the Warriors a 27-22 lead. Defensively, he played with his trademark effort.

Denver Nuggets forward Jeff Green (32) and Golden State Warriors guard Gary Payton II (0) in the second half of Game 3 of a Western Conference NBA basketball first round playoff on Thursday, 21 April 2022 in Denver.  (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Denver Nuggets forward Jeff Green (32) and Golden State Warriors guard Gary Payton II (0) in the second half of Game 3 of a Western Conference NBA basketball first round playoff on Thursday, 21 April 2022 in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

In its first two minutes on the court in Game 3, Golden State beat Denver 8-0.

“You notice when guys come in and what they do for the flow of the game, what they do for the energy of the team, and GP was all of that tonight,” Draymond Green said.

The Warriors led 47-45 when Payton made his next appearance with 7:21 left in the second quarter. Over the next 4:30, he knocked down two more 3-pointers in timely fashion, with the Nuggets choosing to slump on him and record a steal before going out again with 2:51 left before halftime. And guess what? Golden State again beat Denver 14-7 in that span. The Warriors were plus-10 with Payton on the court during the game.

“It seems like every time we put it out there, something good happens,” Kerr said.

Golden State Warriors forward Juan Toscano-Anderson (95) and Golden State Warriors guard Gary Payton II (0) in the second half of Game 3 of an NBA Western Conference basketball first round playoff on Thursday, April 21, 2022 in Denver.  (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Golden State Warriors forward Juan Toscano-Anderson (95) and Golden State Warriors guard Gary Payton II (0) in the second half of Game 3 of an NBA Western Conference basketball first round playoff on Thursday, April 21, 2022 in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Remember how Payton got to this point. He was not drafted from Oregon State in 2016. He then signed with the Rockets only to be cut a month later. He spent time in the G League. He signed numerous two-way and 10-day contracts with different NBA teams, but never lasted long. Then he finally landed with the Warriors. Now that Golden State is fully aware of the value it can bring on both ends, Payton hopes he’s finally found his long-term home.

“I love Golden State,” he said. “I love the organization. They gave me my real opportunity and Coach Kerr saw it from the start.

But for now, Payton is just trying to stay in the moment, instead of worrying about his looming unrestricted free agency. He knows that as long as he continues to play at a high level, the business aspect will take care of itself. And even if he fails to agree on the right contract with the Warriors when the time comes, the rest of the league has watched his growth.

“This is the place for him,” Kerr said. “We appreciate what he brings to the team. He fits perfectly into our squad. He clung to his minutes and he hasn’t looked back.

CJ Holmes covers the Warriors for The San Francisco Chronicle. E-mail:
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@CjHolmes22

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