SAN FRANCISCO – For 16 minutes Friday night, the Warriors’ defense was an unsynchronized waltz, a unit leisurely wandering about as the Chase Center crowd stifled yawns. They were trailing, of all teams, the lowly San Antonio Spurs.
When it became clear this floor, on this night, needed a different DJ, Gary Payton II stepped into the booth.
With a single acrobatic play, Payton provided a jolt of energy, allowing the Warriors to reset the tempo and hang on for a 118-112 victory that keeps alive their hopes in the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament.
Stay in the game with the latest updates on your beloved Bay Area and California sports teams! Sign up here for our All Access Daily newsletter.
To win the Western Conference Group C portion of the tournament, Golden State needs a 13-point win over the Kings next Tuesday in Sacramento, a Thunder win over Timberwolves the same night. If Minnesota wins, the Warriors need at least a 13-point win over the Kings to force a three-way tie.
Though the Warriors (8-9) reverted to their early-game sloppiness in the final minutes, they were able to cling to their shrinking lead – they led by 15 with 2:25 remaining – they might not have generated without Payton.
With Golden State trailing 46-41 and 8:06 remaining in the second quarter, Spurs prize rookie Victor Wembanyama took flight for a layup. Inasmuch as he stands 7-foot-3, it’s a bucket. Except GP2, a foot shorter, chase him down from behind, soared above him and swatted the shot into the expensive seats along the baseline.
“It was an exciting moment,” coach Steve Kerr said. “The crowd loved it. It was a hell of a play. Definitely got our fans into the game.”
Golden State Warriors
It also got the Warriors into the game. After missing the previous three games with a sprained left foot, this was Payton’s way of reintroducing himself to the home crowd – and his teammates to the concept of defense.
In the 16 minutes before the swat, the Spurs built a five-point lead, 46-41, scoring off a variety of wide-open looks from deep and drives into the paint, also ringing up nine points off Golden State turnovers.
In the eight minutes that followed, San Antonio (3-13) scored only nine points and saw its five-point lead become a four-point halftime deficit.
The Warriors survived despite giving the Spurs a whopping 34 points off 24 turnovers, including 12 points off eight Golden State giveaways in the fourth quarter.
“It’s just energy and effort,” said Payton, the smallest player to block a Wemby shot, per ESPN. “Trying to get back and make plays. Get a spark to get us going. After that, we kind of turned up the defensive intensity.”
Payton’s play underscored the Warriors’ need to repair their defense. They were dancing adrift while fouling at twice the rate of the Spurs. The challenges are not a secret, as Kerr conceded 90 minutes before tipoff.
“The fouling, that was the number-one goal defensively coming into the season was to cut back on our fouling, keep our opponents off our foul line as best we could,” he said in his pregame news conference. “I haven’t looked at the stats recently in terms of our league ranking but it’s not good. We’re fouling like crazy. We’ve gotten undisciplined in the last couple of weeks, we’re fouling too much.
“Our opponents are not only getting free points but setting up their defense, which makes it harder to score on the other end. That’s the number-one issue.”
For the record: NBA stats show only the Detroit Pistons’ opponents shoot more free throws than those facing Golden State. The Warriors entered the game ranked 17th in defensive rating, which is not atrocious but surely is below the standard of any legitimate contender.
This is why GP2’s return was such a revivifying addition – and why getting Draymond Green back next Tuesday is so essential to any chance of getting back above .500 in the next few weeks.
Sometimes, a slumbering squad needs a wake-up moment. The Warriors got one from GP2. They can expect another from Draymond in their next game.