Gary Payton II lurked like a ball-hawking free safety, caught a tip off a Klay Thompson-Malik Monk collision, took three dribbles to race down the court and beat the first-quarter buzzer to give the Warriors an eight-point lead over the Kings.
Those six seconds Tuesday night at Golden 1 Center perfectly showcased the jolt Gary Payton II so often brings the Warriors, and what they’re about to badly miss.
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Payton sustained a torn right calf during the Warriors’ 124-123 NBA In-Season Tournament loss and will be out indefinitely, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported Wednesday, citing sources. Payton grabbed the back of his right leg during the final minute of the third quarter and hobbled down the tunnel to the locker room.
The Warriors led 102-92 when Payton’s night ended, and then were outscored 32-21 the rest of the night. His defense was sorely missed down the stretch, as it will be for the time being. Several sequences showcased what only Payton can do.
Take this play from the second quarter, for example. Payton perfectly trailed Kings guard Kevin Huerter and swatted his shot, grabbed his own block and passed to Thompson, who scored on a layup on the other side.
Golden State Warriors
Payton’s peskiness was on display in the third quarter, prior to his injury. This steal and ensuing and-1 is a glaring example of who Payton is for the Warriors, and what so many other teams missed out on by not grabbing him.
Payton, at 6-foot-2, led the Warriors' bench in rebounds with five, and he also had two of the team’s six steals and one of its six blocks. On a night when Payton's season was put on pause, Golden State was reminded how much his availability is key -- a lesson it learned one season ago.
Sitting ninth in the Western Conference standings with a 28-27 record on Feb. 9, the Warriors decided they'd paid for their mistake of allowing Payton to go to Portland and brought him back in a four-team, four-player trade that ended the James Wiseman era. The Warriors decided right then and there that they were all-in on the now, shipping out their former No. 2 overall draft pick to Detroit even after knowing Payton would miss the next 20 games with an injury.
Now, 18 games into this season, the Warriors find themselves in the same spot they did last season without Payton – with an 8-10 record. The Warriors are 1-3 in the four games Payton has been inactive for, and they lost both games he left early because of an injury. Conversely, they're 7-5 with a healthy Payton for all four quarters.
Without him, or in the case Payton couldn’t complete the game, the Warriors are 1-5.
Draymond Green still is the anchor of the Warriors’ defense, though Payton brings bounce to the unit like no other. Coach Steve Kerr’s team doesn’t have another defender who stays in front of elite guards and scorers quite like Payton can.
Devin Booker, Anthony Edwards, Cade Cunningham, Jalen Williams and Malik Monk all have turned over the ball when guarded by Payton this season. CJ McCollum went 0-of-4 shooting in nearly three minutes of Payton defending him, and Donovan Mitchell was 0 of 3 in two-plus minutes. Payton has recorded a steal in 10 of the 14 games inwhich he has played, and he has five multi-steal games, finishing with three twice.
Even Payton taking Wednesday’s news in stride over social media is an example of how he’ll be missed.
Moses Moody should walk right through an open door during Payton’s time away, as he did Tuesday night in Sacramento, when he scored 11 fourth-quarter points on 4-of-4 shooting -- 3 of 3 from deep. Brandin Podziemski might receive more chances, too. The rookie was handed a DNP (Did Not Play) in the Warriors’ latest loss, but his 100.0 defensive rating leads all Warriors who have played stretches of regular minutes. Payton and Moody are second, each with a 104.2 defensive rating, per NBA.com.
The Warriors have felt the pain of losing Payton in the past. They overcame it in the 2022 playoffs and couldn’t last season. So, a switch must be quickly flipped for them to climb the hill this go-around.
Payton in the last year-plus has sustained injuries to his adductor, left ankle and right knee -- a big blow for a 30-year-old built by explosiveness. The Warriors brought him home more than nine months ago, and they’ll be hurt as he watches from afar for an indefinite period of time.