After seven months of play, the Warriors entered the NBA Finals thinking they had finally figured out their rotations.
They thought wrong.
Since the Finals started, Golden State has mixed and matched personnel like it was a November Sunday and everyone was watching football instead of their game. The starting lineup has changed, Andre Iguodala has gone from regular minutes to injured, to spot minutes, to regular minutes again. Draymond Green was benched at one point, and Nemanja Bjelica has become a trusted player after not playing in Game 1.
All this tinkering hasn’t been in vain, though. The Warriors have found a new spine of Steph Curry, Andrew Wiggins, and Kevon Looney.
They might have found their best lineup in Game 5, too. It’s one that could seal the series for Golden State if used again in Game 6 Thursday night in Boston.
And this lineup is anything but conventional.
Without all this Finals experimentation, would Warriors coach Steve Kerr have decided that Gary Payton II, all 6-foot-3 of him, should see minutes at power forward?
I doubt it.
But without Payton II at the four, I also doubt that the Warriors would be one win away from a fourth championship.
Payton didn’t play in Game 1 of the NBA Finals — he was coming off a fractured elbow, after all. But Kerr called Payton’s DNP a mistake.
So then, in Game 2 of the series, he played 26 minutes. The Warriors won handily.
No lesson was learned, though. The Warriors split in Boston, but Payton only played 10 minutes a game, performing better in Game 4, the Warriors’ win.
He was a man without a role.
He was a man who needed one.
When Payton plays, he’s an asset. He’s one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA despite his size, and offensively, he is sharp, aggressive, and can knock down a corner 3, too.
Payton plays so much larger than he actually is. The Warriors need to keep exploiting the optical illusion.
And when early foul trouble on Looney forced Kerr to play Green at center in the first half of Game 5, Payton found his best position and the Warriors found their best five-man lineup, in turn.
In five minutes with Payton in the Warriors’ starting lineup instead of Otto Porter on Monday, Golden State had a 150 offensive rating and 100 defensive rating for a net rating of 50.
For the folks who aren’t up on offensive and defensive rating, that means the Warriors were on pace to outscore Boston by 50 points over 100 possessions.
In simpler terms: Very good, do more of that.
Swap out Draymond Green for Kevon Looney in that lineup — as the Warriors did for eight minutes in Game 5 — and the Warriors have a defensive rating of 86.7 and a net rating of 42.7.
Of all the lineups used by either team for five or more minutes Monday, these two lineups were unquestionably the best.
And it should be noted that the Warriors’ starting lineup posted a minus-22 net rating in Game 5. It didn’t work until Payton was at the four.
In the two games Payton has played more than a handful of minutes, he has given the Warriors exactly what they need, without sacrificing anything in the process.
The Warriors lose nothing on the glass when Payton is in the game. He’s arguably the best small rebounder in the game.
And defensively, he gives Golden State a third, sometimes fourth defender to square up with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics’ two talented wings who are hunting for matchups off high screens.
Rebounding, stout defense, enviable smarts, and the ability to knock down a corner shot and rise above the rim?
That’s everything the Warriors want in a frontcourt alongside either Green or Looney.
That’s the kind of play the Warriors have been looking for from Porter in this series, and have only received in spurts.
So who cares if it comes from a player who looks nothing like a power forward?
These Warriors are a much different team than the first championship edition, but there’s something familiar about Payton’s play.
(And no, it’s not a resemblance to Quinn Cook, who at 6-foot-flat spaced the floor as a four for the injured 2019 Warriors in the NBA Finals and who had two critical misplays in the final moments of Game 6 of that series.)
It’s a resemblance to vintage Iguodala — everywhere on defense, doing all the little things that need to be done, and with an uncanny penchant for knocking down big shots in big moments.
Now, I’ve already tried my hand at suggesting starters, so let’s, instead, take this data and suggest a closing lineup for the Warriors on Thursday and perhaps Sunday:
The Warriors need to ensure that it includes Payton, the team’s best power forward.
Contributed by local news sources