Steve Kerr turns to Gary Payton II for Warriors’ needed defensive boost

Dubs need defensive boost, and Kerr knows GP2 will answer originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

Steve Kerr hedged his bet Wednesday night, expressing uncertainty about the role of Gary Payton II when the Warriors will face the Trail Blazers at Moda Center in Portland.

“More than likely, Gary will start (Thursday),” Kerr said. “But I haven’t made the decision.”

More than likely?

There’s no evident strategic need in this instance to equivocate. Portland is a shell of a rebuilding team, having traded three starters this month and sitting the remaining two, Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkić, due to injuries.

The Blazers have surrendered, and Kerr knows it.

The coach also knows the Warriors need every ounce of defensive energy they can find, and nobody devotes more of that than GP2.

“A little more defensive versatility gets Gary on the floor more,” Kerr acknowledged. “Getting him more minutes right now is important. You could see his impact the other night.”

The other night would be last Wednesday, when the Warriors faced the Denver Nuggets in the final game before the All-Star break. Kerr spent much of his pregame session bemoaning the team’s recent sluggish, sloppy defense while also expressing his faith in internal solutions.

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He unleashed Payton, who immediately went out and validated the move. Entering the starting lineup for the first time in five weeks, GP2’s high-energy performance restored the heartbeat of a comatose D and quickened the pulses of slumbering teammates.

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Though Payton bolstered the offense, pushing the pace at every opportunity on offense, scoring 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting, it was his defense that put the wind beneath the Warriors.

He was his usual disruptive self, frustrating various Nuggets and picking up a career-high-tying six steals and inspiring his teammates to come up with seven more. The Warriors forced 19 Denver turnovers, and Payton was involved in at least one-third of them.

Payton also grabbed four rebounds — and delivered the kind of highlight sure to be watched and re-watched years to come, somehow vaulting his 6-foot-3 body high enough to reject a jump hook by the NBA’s reigning MVP, 7-foot center Nikola Jokić.

Kerr on several occasions this season has conceded a need to find more minutes for GP2, mostly because of his defensive intensity. He thrives on on-ball challenges, and that was an area of weakness in the two weeks leading up to the break.

With Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala both sidelined by injuries — and not knowing how long they’ll be out — there is every reason to believe that the Warriors, in their absence, are best served by finding more minutes for GP2.

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Right coach?

“Starting him,” Kerr said, “allows us to get to our rotations and gives him an extra rotation at the beginning of the game, which bumps him up closer to 20 minutes.”

Which is ideal for a team that lost four of five before the break — and in the last two seasons came out of the break with losses, last season to the Los Angeles Clippers and the previous season to the Houston Rockets.

Expect Kerr to send GP2 onto the floor for tipoff. Anything else deserves an explanation.

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