How GP2 played in Warriors Return; who was most affected

SAN FRANCISCO — Gary Payton II had no expectations of how his first game back in the Warriors jersey would feel at the Chase Center. He didn’t have to. He has felt love before and knew he would do it again on Sunday night.

Loud cheers even began during the pre-game warm-up as Payton donned his headband and looked boxed in for his return. Then, with 26 seconds remaining in the first quarter, it was time for Payton to attend a game for the first time since February 8th.

“It’s just a nice welcome home,” Payton said. “I mess with Dub Nation so much. It’s all love.”

In the end, love for the home fans turned somber as the Warriors fumbled away a huge win but instead suffered a 99-96 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. The loss led to a nine-game win streak at home. They hadn’t lost a game on their home court since February 11.

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

For the most part, that sounded true. He directed traffic on defence, flew across the floor and pointed from both sides of the court, making him unique in coach Steve Kerr’s system.

“It was great to have Gary back,” said Klay Thompson. “I was really happy with the ovation he got because he deserved it. He was a big part of what we did last year and why we became champions and I know he’ll be again this year because he’s such a great player.

“He’s so good on the edge, he’s so good on defense and he’s just going to be a huge asset for us in the future.”

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What mattered most about Payton’s return was how he felt physically during and after the loss. For him it felt like he had played less than almost 16 minutes. Payton played just 26 seconds in the first quarter, more than seven minutes in the second, sat the entire third quarter and played almost eight minutes in the fourth.

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

“I feel like myself,” Payton said. “I can move, do what I have to do. As long as I feel like myself, it’s just normal.”

However, who Payton was surrounded by wasn’t always normal. Payton rejoins a Warriors team still led by Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Thompson, plus Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins – should he return this season. The bank is younger, with some new faces.

While Payton has to adjust to some changes, he says he’s comfortable with whoever shares the floor against Minnesota. Payton has caught all eyes during games, observing how his newer teammates like to play and where they want to be on the pitch. He constantly communicates with hope for simpler chemistry. It’s not always that easy.

As the second quarter began, Payton was on the floor with Curry, Poole, Green and Jonathan Kuminga. Pairing Payton with Kuminga and Green theoretically gives the Warriors three fearsome defenders to attack. Shooting and ground clearance can be an issue with this trio, and Kerr quickly left the group after they were minus 6 together in just over three minutes.

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Kuminga played almost 15 minutes off the bench. In the Warriors’ last six games, he spent an average of 24.4 minutes per game. Kerr chose to go small and try to use the Warriors’ speed to their advantage against the larger Timberwolves. JaMychal Green only saw 3:57 action. Those are his few minutes this season in a game he’s stepped on the pitch.

Moses Moody has been a constant in Warriors rotations, and has been up/down in every game this month. On Sunday he received his first DNP (Did Not Play) in three weeks. Donte DiVincenzo played just nine seconds in the fourth quarter.

The biggest period of adjustment isn’t so much for the players as it is for Kerr and his coaching staff, who are trying to field a player with skills that are second to none, with just a handful of regular-season games left.

“I’ll say it. I’ll say it out loud to the group,” Kerr said in his pregame press conference when asked if players were losing minutes against Payton. “I think the only thing any 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 want to do and what if Gary comes back with it obviously means a few minutes are being taken away from the other guys.”

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

That is hard to say. They only played together for 13 seconds.

Just as 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 anyone could even blink. For only the fourth time this season, the Warriors kept their opponent below 100 points on Payton’s return. Golden State has been a perfect 3-0 in their last three games.

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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 averaged 7.9 points at 34.6 percent shooting and 30.8 percent from depth.

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

“No, there’s no hesitation,” Kerr said when asked about DiVincenzo’s last two games. “Every game will be a little bit different and Donte does a really good job of defending and moving the ball and just playing his game. There will be some games where he leads eight or ten 3-pointers and other games – he’s obviously played fewer minutes tonight, played 20 minutes but with Gary’s return cut into Donte’s minutes, JK’s minutes, so it will be here.

“We have to find turns and combinations that work.”

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Kerr and his coaching staff still have six games to go. The reigning NBA champions are struggling to avoid the play-in tournament and climb up the Western Conference rankings. Payton gives them more confidence physically and mentally to pull off both feats.

His return also requires an adjustment at a time when synergy and cohesion are needed for every 48 minutes.

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