SAN FRANCISCO — Five NBA players total have reached stratosphere to block 7-foot-4 Victor Wembanyama. None smaller than 6-foot-1 Gary Payton II, who soared at least two feet in the air on a chase down to swipe away the rookie sensation’s shot at the rim.
On a bum left ankle after three games out, nonetheless.
The acrobatic and downright spectacular feat sent drowsy Chase Center into a frenzy, and they’d been waiting for something to get excited about.
“Just trying to get back and make plays,” Payton said. “After that we kind of turned up the defensive intensity and it got us getting stops and go out and run and do what we like to do on defense.”
Despite the 118-112 win on Friday night, it’s fair to harbor some concerns over how the Warriors defense came out against a San Antonio Spurs offense that ranks as one of the league’s worst. Through much of that first half, the Spurs were sinking open 3-pointers and practically getting to the rim at will. The Spurs have all the size, youth and athleticism to challenge a Warriors team that’s slightly lacking in all three, but, in theory, none of the wisdom to outsmart them.
Payton’s block not only defied gravity, but brought the lackadaisical Warriors’ defense back down to Earth as they saw themselves down five and slipping not only out of the in-season tournament, but into the reality of a 10th loss. After that, the Warriors locked in and contained the Spurs to just nine points to take a four-point halftime lead. By the fourth quarter, they led by 18.
After their loss to the Phoenix Suns, Curry lamented the Warriors’ core’s inability to “fly around” the court to force chaos — turnovers, deflections, mental lapses — and pick up the kind of frantic pace that used to demoralize opponents.
Post-Wembanyama block, traces of that chaos came to the surface. Up six late in the third quarter, Dario Saric picked Zack Collins’ pocket and pushed the ball to Chris Paul, who saw Curry jetting down the wing for a made transition 3 in the corner. A few possessions later, Payton’s ball pressure on Tre Jones forced a bad pass to Collins and another steal for Saric. Saric was called for a foul on the play that the Warriors successfully challenged.
“He’s one of those guys, might show in the stat sheet or not, he makes the opponent have to be aware of him,” Curry said of Payton. “Think about him. We call that chaos out there.”
Payton also picked up the slack communicating on defense with Draymond Green, the defensive voice, serving the final game of his suspension.
“We have to talk better as a group,” Curry said. “I think he took that challenge — having watched for however games he was out — to make his presence felt there, too.”
As Curry predicted, Payton’s statistics weren’t standout. He was a 0 in the plus/minus category with three rebounds, four points, a steal and the mother of all blocks. Anyone watching the Warriors’ defense in the three games he’s missed might’ve seen the cascade effect his mere presence on ball, defending wings twice his size, made.
On top of that, Payton said he isn’t feeling 100 percent healed from his sprain.
“Probably won’t be 100 percent until the offseason,” Payton said. “You just have to find ways to thug it out.”