Guarding opposing superstars is ‘fun’ to Gary Payton II.
Playing for the first time since January 2nd, Payton scored 11 points, grabbed four rebounds, dished two assists, swiped one steal and blocked one shot in just 14 minutes, also shooting a perfect 5-of-5 from the field—including a wing three-pointer and a pair of acrobatic reverse lob finishes. Both Stephen Curry and Draymond Green highlighted his offensive influence on the postgame podium, lamenting how easily and frequently that aspect of Payton’s game—especially the finer points like screening, cutting and quickly moving the ball—gets overlooked.
Saturday’s game was a forceful reminder of why that dynamic exists, though, Payton’s dogged individual defense on Kevin Durant and Devin Booker playing a major role in the Suns’ paltry 106.7 offensive rating. He was especially aggressive checking Durant, refusing to give the two-time Finals MVP airspace off the bounce while forcing him into a series of contested mid-rangers.
Not many players in the NBA would relish the assignment of guarding arguably the best pure scorer of all-time, particularly facing an eight or nine-inch height differential. Payton, obviously, isn’t most players. He doesn’t just want the other team’s toughest matchup on a nightly basis, but finds defending superstars “fun.”
“It’s what I’m here for. It’s the funnest part of the game, you know, guarding superstars,” Payton told ClutchPoints after the game. “Try to make it difficult, tough for them. Make them think. It was great.”
Golden State was already thriving defensively before Payton returned from injury, reaping the benefits of Green-the best defender of his generation-coming back from suspension and playing center full-time. Andrew Wiggins looks much more like the bonafide stopper who helped the Dubs to a title in 2022, and Jonathan Kuminga is getting more and more consistent deploying his rare physical tools both on the ball and in help situations defensively.
The Warriors’ 111.4 defensive rating in the last 10 games ranks third-stingiest in basketball. With Green, Wiggins and Kuminga on the floor for the season at large, their defensive rating is a ridiculous 101.5, per pbpstats, over seven points per 100 possessions lower than the Minnesota Timberwolves’ league-leading mark.
Needless to say, Golden State will be even more difficult to score on now that an elite all-around defender and tone-setter like Gary Payton II is back in the fold. The Dubs’ next two opponents, the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, better take note of his presence. Payton seems to have no other plans going forward but wrecking offenses, just like he did while helping the Warriors to one of their best wins of 2023-24.
“We got Utah and then we got the Clippers, so…I’m excited for the next couple games, basically,” he said.