Gary Payton II burns the Nuggets, helps Warriors advance to the second round

Gary Payton II burns the Nuggets, helps Warriors advance to the second round

Jordan Poole’s offensive brilliance defined the first three games of this first-round series. He scored 86 points on 42 shots, causing such trouble for the Denver defense that it was forced to alter its plan, up its physicality and put Aaron Gordon on Poole in an attempt to shut off the faucet.

It generally worked. A sped-up, scattered Poole finished the series with his two worst scoring nights since February. His Game 5 included foul trouble and a target on his back on the defensive end. His fifth foul came with 8:06 left in the fourth quarter. Poole failed to recognize this guard-to-guard dribble hand-off action, let Monte Morris zoom past him and then leaned in for the automatic whistle.

That foul guaranteed Poole would sit on the bench for a chunk of the fourth quarter. Gary Payton II ensured he’d stay there for nearly the duration. Payton entered with 3:11 left in the third quarter. He remained on the court for the next 15 minutes of game action, only subbing out with 21 seconds left in the fourth to let the team’s best free-throw shooters ice a 102-98 Game 5 victory he helped deliver.

Rotations shrink in the playoffs. Depth erodes as a series drags deeper. Andre Iguodala and Nemanja Bjelica opened the playoffs in the rotation. Iguodala is now injured; Bjelica has been played off the floor. Kevon Looney is the steady veteran with six fouls to use on a center like Nikola Jokić, but Kerr and the Warriors never intend to close with him. They’re at their best with Draymond Green at center. That means Looney on the bench in crunchtime.

This odd mix of a roster is what makes Payton such a valuable tool out of the bullpen. Without Iguodala and without Poole playing well, Payton becomes the best option to juice the Warriors’ small-ball lineup. That would be a stunning revelation to many, including those in the locker room, if you rewind to October, when Payton slipped onto the 15th spot of the roster just ahead of Avery Bradley, whom some veterans preferred.

“Our front office has done an incredible job just plucking out talent where teams might have disregarded a guy,” Thompson said. “But our system and the confidence we give guys allows them to be themselves. What a find GP was.”

Payton blasted onto the scene in the first few weeks of the regular season. His first few appearances were as a defensive specialist to close out a quarter. Kerr put him on the court for a single possession in three different games. He produced a steal all three times.

That motivated Kerr to give him some rotation minutes. Payton had several big nights that piqued the interest of the veterans. They know which role players are built for the regular season and which types of skill sets translate to the postseason — 82-game players and 16-game players, Green once termed it.

“Seemed so long ago,” Steph Curry said. “But November was wild, just how he was making his presence felt, bringing a lot of energy, athleticism, on both ends of the floor, his defensive awareness and impact.”

“Once he made the team and really made his mark,” Green said, “you kind of knew then he would be one of those 16-game players.”

Fast-forward to Wednesday night. The Warriors needed a defensive jolt late in the third quarter. They went to Payton in his typical rotation spot. He blocked a floater his second possession on the floor. He roamed around as the lanky disruptor in the zone scheme that Green said changed the game.

In the first two games of this series, Payton blocked Jokić twice. He’s about as bouncy and versatile of a defensive guard as you’ll find. Kerr called him “elite” on that end. But his primary responsibility in this series was to contain Bones Hyland. In four of the five games, he did his job.

That included Wednesday’s clincher. Look at this fourth-quarter possession. Payton is bumping Hyland physically to keep him out of rhythm, lets him release to the right corner and shows help to DeMarcus Cousins, who has the ball in the post. Cousins ​​thinks he can drop a cross-courter to Hyland for a corner 3. But Payton is so alert and athletic that he’s able to bait the pass and fly back in time to contest the shot and force an airball.

The Warriors can always rely upon Payton to make a defensive impact. Unlike Poole, the opposition will never target him. That’s what makes him a closing option on certain nights. But to survive, he must help out on the offensive end, where opponents will try to leverage his perceived weaknesses to ignore him and overload on Curry and Klay Thompson.

That often means putting a big man on Payton. Jokić was hobbled with a hamstring injury in the fourth quarter. Denver tried to hide him on Payton. The Warriors attacked that at one of the game’s most important moments. Look at this lightning-quick pick-and-roll. Payton sets a high screen near half court and is already zipping in for a righty (off-hand) layup a few seconds later.

It can’t always be Payton high-screen action, though. The Warriors have several other sets that require Payton to remain as a stationary floor spacer. But defenses tend to ignore him. Payton couldn’t stick on an NBA roster the past half-decade because of his inability to hit an open 3

But he has advanced in that area this season. He made 35.8 percent of his limited attempts. That still hasn’t forced defenses to respect him out there, but it shows he can burn the disrespect. That happened six times in this series. Payton went 6-of-8 from deep against the Nuggets. That included these two absolute fourth-quarter daggers.

Here is the first, leveraging a Curry double-team.

Here is the second, bailing out Green (who passed up a layup) for probably the biggest three points of the series.

Payton played 85 minutes against the Nuggets in the first round. The Warriors outscored Denver by 20 points with him on the floor. His role in the second round might be more important if it’s Memphis. Payton, in the regular season, proved he was the Warriors’ best individual defensive option against Ja Morant. On Wednesday, he proved he can be trusted in crunchtime of a playoff game.


For more on Payton, read this terrific profile piece by Marcus Thompson.

(Photo of Gary Payton II guarding the Nuggets’ Bones Hyland: Jed Jacobsohn / Associated Press)

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