SAN FRANCISCO — Chase Center erupted in cheers Sunday night when Gary Payton II got off the Warriors bench midway through the opening quarter and seemed to be readying himself to check into a game for the first time since the infamous Dillon Brooks’ foul broke his left elbow last month.
Except Payton jumped the gun. When he realized it, he darted off the sideline and into the Warriors’ tunnel where he paced back-and-forth as he eagerly waited for coach Steve Kerr to call on him.
“I was itching to get out there,” Payton said after the Warriors’ 107-88 win over the Celtics. Kerr “kind of pump faked me at first for a little bit, got me going. But after I got on the floor, I kind of calmed down and settled in.”
Payton was available for certain situations in Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday but didn’t play. When he entered Game 2 with 5:30 left in the first quarter, he received a raucous ovation from the home crowd. It was a euphoric and gratifying moment for the NBA journeyman after an agonizing month when he missed the majority of two playoff series and watched his team advance to the NBA Finals while he nursed his ailing elbow.
“Knowing that I could come out there and help my teammates, it’s been frustrating since the injury,” Payton said. “Last week, I knew I was very close, so it was just anticipation and just antsy, ready to get out there.”
Kerr was never concerned with Payton’s conditioning, noting that the defensive specialist maintained his physique over the last three weeks by doing intense defensive slides, sprints and one-on-one full-court action while dribbling with his non-dominant hand. But Kerr did worry about whether he would be able to fully extend his elbow and how that might hamper his shot.
Payton put to rest any concerns about his health and showed why he could be key in helping the Warriors win their fourth title in eight years. Though he had a scary fall after being fouled on a transition basket and missed the subsequent free throws, Payton hit a corner 3 that pulled the Warriors within one point with 1:20 left in the first quarter.
In the end, he made all three of his shots for seven points, grabbed three rebounds and dished out three assists in 25 minutes.
“He was brilliant,” Kerr said. “The level of defense, physicality and speed in transition, it gives us a huge boost.”
Payton dismissed the notion that he was still dealing with discomfort in his left elbow but said he was running on adrenaline and “just going.”
Payton is “going to make plays, he’s going to get to the rim, he’s going to fall,” Kevon Looney said. “Gary is a tough guy, he always plays through injuries.”
Before this season, Payton had been scratching for opportunities to play professional basketball his entire adult life. After going undrafted, he bounced around the NBA and G League for the last five years as a fringe player — never playing more than 30 games in a season before this year.
But Payton had gone from being the last man on the Warriors roster to a key rotational player. The stifling defender has provided a spark off the bench for Golden State while also earning some starting opportunities.
Payton appeared to be peaking at the right time, earning back-to-back starting nods in the Western Conference semifinals series against the Grizzlies before his devastating injury. But Payton never lost faith that he would return this postseason.
His resiliency to grind through the last month to get to a point where he could make an impact in the NBA Finals is not overlooked by his teammates.
Draymond Green called Payton’s return Sunday night an “incredible” moment.
“He’s had quite the journey,” Green said. “It’s tough losing him in that Memphis series… To see him finally get that opportunity and come in, I know it was hard on him, missing the first couple free throws, and to step in there after that and knock down that 3, having very little reps of shooting the basketball since that Memphis series just shows who he is.
“That’s the reason he’s here, though. Most guys can’t step up in that situation, but GP, he’s tough and he’s built the right way and he stepped up and he gave us some good minutes tonight.”