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From the eye test to the box score and the advanced numbers, it’s clear what a difference Gary Payton II’s return to the Warriors made in their 107-88 thrashing of the Boston Celtics on Sunday night in Game 2 of the NBA Finals.
Payton played 25 minutes off the bench, scoring seven points along with three rebounds and three assists. He was a perfect 3 for 3 from the field after missing the last month to a fractured left elbow, and the lefty made his only 3-point attempt.
Welcome back, indeed.
Not only did Payton’s return play a big hand in the Warriors evening up the best-of-seven series, it also allowed Steve Kerr to unlock a scary new lineup on the Celtics. One that played together in only one game and for three minutes in the regular season.
The five-man group consists of Payton, Steph Curry, Andrew Wiggins, Otto Porter Jr. and Draymond Green.
“That was a big one,” Wiggins said Tuesday at TD Garden of Payton coming back. “With Gary on the court, he affects the game in so many different ways. It’s because he’s capable of guarding the one through the three, and he can make it difficult for a lot of people.
“Him being on the court is a big difference for us.”
How big? Those five played eight minutes together, producing a 150 offensive rating and 100 defensive rating. The’ve now played in two games together in the playoffs, and have a 163.6 offensive rating and an 86.4 defensive rating over 12 minutes.
The key is versatility that Wiggins hit on. When Payton entered Game 2 in the first quarter, it mirrored Boston guard Derrick White entering the game. White scored 21 points in Game 1 and only 12 in Game 2 while going 4-for-13 from the field. Payton also was put on Celtics star Jayson Tatum, who stands five inches taller than him.
Tatum upped his scoring from 12 points in Game 1 to 28 two nights later, but was a game-low minus-36.
All four of Payton, Wiggins, Porter and Green can guard multiple positions and switch onto a handful of players. Then there’s Curry. He’s seen as the worst defender of the group, however, he continues to buck the narrative that he’s a negative on that side of the ball.
Curry has recorded three steals in each of the past three games, and his marathon-like activity doesn’t only include running off screens, setting them and completing his maze on offense. He’s just as active on defense.
“Very underrated,” Kerr said Tuesday when asked about Curry’s defense. “He’s more physical than people give him credit for. He’s really competitive. He sticks with the game plan. He’s not afraid to stick his nose in there and be really aggressive.”
Curry still is listed at 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds. Don’t mistake him with being a Baby Faced Assassin any longer, though. Him sporting a beard now plays a part in that. It also is bigger than facial hair, too.
Now at 34 years old, Curry has transformed his body into someone who can absorb blows when driving to the hoop, as well as holding his own guarding players much bigger than him.
And his motor simply never steps.
“He’s just upped his level of conditioning to the point where he can guard 50 screen and rolls a game and run 50 screen and rolls a game,” Kerr said. “Not many people can do that.”
With Curry, Payton, Wiggins, Porter and Green all on the court together, there isn’t a true defensive liability. They can match the wing-heavy and switchable Celtics, and the groups is worth watching going forward.