How GP2 played in Warriors return, who was affected most


SAN FRANCISCO -- Gary Payton II didn't have any expectations for how his first game back wearing a Warriors jersey would feel at Chase Center. He didn't need to. He has felt the love before and knew he would again Sunday night. 

Loud cheers began even during pregame warmups when Payton put on his headband and looked locked in for his return. Then, with 26 seconds remaining in the first quarter, it was time for Payton to enter a game for the first time since Feb. 8.

"That's just a nice welcome home," Payton said. "I mess with Dub Nation like that. It is all love." 

In the end, the love turned to a somber tone for the home fans as the Warriors fumbled away what would have been a huge win, but instead was a 99-96 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. The loss snapped a nine-game home win streak. They hadn't dropped a game on their home court since Feb. 11. 

Payton played 15 1/2 minutes, coming back from a right adductor/core muscle injury that has plagued him all season and saw him miss the Warriors' last 20 games. He scored nine points on 3-of-4 shooting, with two rebounds, one assist and one block. On Saturday, Payton promised playing with this Warriors team would be "like riding a bike." 

For the most part, that rang true. He was direction traffic in defense, flying around the floor and showcasing what makes him so unique on both sides of the court in coach Steve Kerr's system. 

"It was great having Gary back," Klay Thompson said. "I was really happy with the ovation he got, because he earned it. He was a huge part of what we did last year and why we were the champs, and I know he will be again this year because he's such a great player. 

"He's so good around the rim, he's so good on defense and he's just going to be a huge asset for us going forward."

What mattered most in Payton's return was how he felt physically during and after the loss. To him, it felt like he played even fewer than nearly 16 minutes. Payton played only 26 seconds in the first quarter, seven-plus minutes in the second, sat the entire third quarter and played almost eight minutes in the fourth. 

Earlier this season when playing with the Portland Trail Blazers, Payton didn't appear to have the same explosiveness that made so many Warriors fans get out of their seats last season. It was clear he was a gear behind. That didn't seem to be the case Sunday night. 

"I feel like myself," Payton said. "I can move around, do what I need to do. As long as I feel like myself, it's just normal." 

Who Payton was surrounded by wasn't always normal, though. Payton re-joins a Warriors team still led by Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Thompson, as well as Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins -- if he's to return this season. The bench is younger, with some new faces as well. 

While Payton will have to adjust to some changes, he says he was comfortable with whoever shared the floor with him against Minnesota. Payton has been all eyes during games, watching how his newer teammates like to play and where they want to be on the court. He's constantly communicating with the hopes of easier chemistry. It's not always that easy. 

When the second quarter began, Payton was on the floor with Curry, Poole, Green and Jonathan Kuminga. Pairing Payton with Kuminga and Green, in theory, gives the Warriors three scary defenders for opposing offenses. The shooting and floor spacing can be an issue with that trio, and Kerr quickly went away from the group after they were a minus-6 together in a little over three minutes. 

Kuminga played just under 15 minutes off the bench. Over the Warriors' previous six games, he was averaging 24.4 minutes per game. Kerr opted to go small and try and use the Warriors' speed to their advantage against the bigger Timberwolves. JaMychal Green only saw 3:57 of action. That's his fewest minutes this season in a game where he has stepped on the court. 

Moses Moody has been more and more a constant in the Warriors' rotations, and has been in the positive with his plus/minus in every game this month. On Sunday, he received his first DNP (Did Not Play) in three weeks. Donte DiVincenzo played only nine seconds in the fourth quarter. 

The biggest adapting period isn't so much for the players, it's for Kerr and his coaching staff trying to implement a player with a skill set unlike anybody else with only a handful of regular-season games remaining. 

"I say it. I say it out loud to the group," Kerr said in his pregame press conference when asked about players losing minutes to Payton. "I think the one thing every player wants is clarity and honesty. Having been a player before, everything is much easier when you know what the coach is thinking. I always try to share with our guys what we are looking to do, and with Gary coming back, it means that some minutes will obviously be taken away from other guys." 

One combination many were looking forward to seeing was Payton playing alongside Donte DiVincenzo. Many saw DiVincenzo as a Payton replacement when GP2 signed with Portland in the offseason, and the Warriors shifted their focus to DiVincenzo. So, how did they look together? 

That's hard to say. They only played 13 seconds together.

Right when they were on the court at the same time, DiVincenzo asked Payton if he wanted to play full-court defense. The Warriors forced a turnover before anybody could even blink. For only the fourth time this season, the Warriors held their opponent to under 100 points in Payton's return. Golden State was a perfect 3-0 the previous three games.

Perhaps one of the reasons the experiment didn't last long is DiVincenzo's recent dip in offensive production. In February, he averaged 13.3 points on 53.8-percent shooting and made 50 percent of his 3-point attempts. In March, he's averaging 7.9 points on 34.6-percent shooting and 30.8 percent from deep. 

Between the last two games, both starts, DiVincenzo has scored two points on three total shot attempts. 

"No, there's no hesitation," Kerr said when asked about DiVincenzo's last two games. "Every game is going to be a little different, and Donte's doing a really good job of defending and moving the ball and just playing his game. There's going to be some games where he gets eight or 10 threes up, and other games -- he obviously played fewer minutes tonight, played 20 minutes, but with Gary's return that cut into Donte's minutes, cut into JK's minutes, so that's how it's going to be here. 

"We got to figure out rotations and combinations that fit." 

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Kerr and his coaching staff have six games left to do so. The defending NBA champions are fighting to avoid the play-in tournament and climb their way up the Western Conference standings. Payton gives them more confidence physically and mentally in being able to complete both feats. 

His return also calls for adapting at a time when synergy and cohesiveness is needed for all 48 minutes.

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