Can Gary Payton II decide the Finals?
The best little big man plays “The Cooler”
BY DAVID THORPE
If Jayson Tatum hasn’t reached the pinnacle of Mount Scoring, he’s damned close. The Celtics don’t have an offensive system like the Warriors’ Cuisinart. Instead, they use the superior skills of playmakers like Tatum to get the first domino of the defense to fall; then they are savage in creating points out of wherever the defense is weakest.
And so a great mystery of Game 2 was the number of plays that Jayson Tatum played more like Grant Williams—hanging out on the perimeter, hoping someone else would make something happen that would result in an open 3. (He made six of them.) But on an unusual number of plays, Tatum didn’t get assists; didn’t catch the ball on the move; didn’t put the ball on the floor; didn’t draw a foul or hang in the air for a miraculous jumper.
What’s especially weird about Tatum making just eight shots all game is that—by this point in his career—the 6-8 apex predator wing, reigning Eastern Conference Finals MVP, and first-time All-NBA First Teamer appears to have a plan for every opponent. Put a bigger guy on him, Tatum plays the perimeter, baiting the slower-footed defender closer so he can blow by him. Or maybe that defender fears embarrassment so much that he stays back, giving Tatum the open 3 he wanted in the first place. Facing a quicker, smaller defender, Tatum plays bully ball, backing his “mouse” into “the house” for a paint jumper, or even a layup, often drawing a foul in the process.
What caused that passivity? Two overlooked factors: Tatum’s flirting with the all-time record for turnovers in the playoffs (he’s averaging 4.2 per game), and the return of Warriors turnover-creating machine Gary Payton II.
Payton II is 29 years old. This is the first season he has ever played regular rotation minutes, and it’s not because he’s new to the NBA. It’s because undersized defensive specialists have a hard time earning adulation and respect. He’s been ignored and belittled forever, despite leaving Oregon State University with back-to-back All-Pac-12 First Team and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year awards. At the 2016 draft, no one called his name. (A couple of months ago, Marcus Thompson of The Athletic wrote a great story about Payton II, whose famous dad once called him a “sorry-ass basketball player.”)
You know who has waived Gary Payton II? The Rockets in 2016, the Bucks in 2017 and 2018. The Lakers and Blazers in 2018, and the Wizards the year after that. Hell, the Warriors technically waived him this past October before signing him to a real contract.
Trials and tribulations can be good for young people—so long as they search for ways to overcome obstacles. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book about it. Through that lens, Payton II’s success makes a little more sense.