SAN FRANCISCO – Golden State Warriors guard Gary Payton II is one NBA Finals win away from his first championship. Even so, the son of the Basketball Hall of Fame guard of the same name who has won an NBA title didn’t feel comfortable contemplating what being a champion would mean.
Considering Payton II’s journeyman career and his recent recovery from a broken elbow, it’s understandable because nothing has ever come easy for him.
“I couldn’t tell you right now, to be honest,” Payton II told Andscape after the Warriors’ 104-94 victory over the Boston Celtics in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Monday night at Chase Center. “It’s unbelievable. We need to get greedy here and finish it. If we do, I might have something to say. But right now, we have 48 minutes. We got it done and come with the same intensity and get greedy on the road.”
Payton II was a huge spark for the Warriors in the Game 5 victory as he tied his career playoff-high with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field. The fifth-year NBA veteran also grabbed five rebounds and earned a playoff-high three steals in 26 minutes off the bench. The Warriors could win their fourth NBA title since 2015 by winning Game 6 of the NBA Finals in Boston on Thursday night.
If the Warriors win the title, Payton’s motivational story may only pale compared to teammate Klay Thompson, who has overcome major knee and Achilles injuries to get back to the Finals. Payton II went undrafted out of Oregon State in 2016. The 29-year-old played in the G League for Rio Grande, Wisconsin, South Bay (twice), Capital City and Raptors 905. Payton II also jumped around the NBA starting in 2017, playing with the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Washington Wizards and Warriors.
Payton II was initially cut by the Warriors before they signed him to be the last player on their 15-player roster before this season. His defense vaulted him into the Warriors’ playing rotation quickly.
By Jan. 6, his one-year, $1.94 million contract became guaranteed, the first time in his NBA career that his contract was fully guaranteed. In 71 regular-season games this season, Payton II averaged 7.1 points and 3.5 rebounds while shooting 61.6% from the field.
“You fall, you get knocked down, you get back up,” Payton II said. “Straight up. Get back up. It may take 10 years. If you’re really passionate about it and you really want to accomplish something and never give up on your dream, you get back up and keep going.”
Payton II suffered a fractured left elbow in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Memphis Grizzlies on May 3. The injury took place when he sustained a flagrant foul 2 by Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks. Brooks received a one-game suspension, and Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Brooks “broke the code” with the unnecessary contact.
While the injury was expected to sideline Payton II for four to six weeks at the biggest time of the season, he didn’t hold any ill will toward Brooks.
“I wasn’t angry. S— happens,” Payton II said. “Playoff basketball. No layups. I 100% feel that. It’s playoff basketball. It’s no easy buckets. Bad plays made at bad times. Bad spot at the wrong time. Three to five weeks. Wasn’t too bad. Did rehab and get back.”
Through it all, Payton II’s older sister, Raquel, helped him get through the absence from the Warriors with daily words of wisdom. She offered Bible verses, a shoulder to lean on and encouragement.
“After he got hurt, he called me every single day, which is a little unlike him,” Raquel Payton said. “I would tell him that his story and his testimony was really a story about putting God first, being determined and being passionate. And every day, you’re going to make it. And we talked every day, which in real life is really weird. We usually talk once a week. I would tell him that ‘You’re doing fine. Everything is fine …’
“His spirit, vibe and energy is so positive. Even in his own personal life right now, it’s just a positive vibe. And that reflects on the court, too.”
Payton II finally returned to action during Game 2 of the 2022 NBA Finals. The 6-foot-3 195-pounder is averaging 7.3 points and 3.3 rebounds in 18 minutes in four Finals games. The Warriors are 3-1 with Payton II on the floor.
Long after Game 5, a living music legend patiently waited on the Chase Center floor to pay respect to Payton II after he completed a media interview. Renowned rapper Too $hort has known Payton II’s parents, Gary and Monique, both of whom are fellow Oakland, California, natives, for decades. While Payton II wouldn’t remember, Too $hort met him when he was a little kid.
“That’s little homey. I know his mama. I know his daddy,” Too $hort told Andscape. “I know his background from when he was a little dude. And I am so proud of him and what he is doing right now for himself, the team, and his career. I understand why he is such a beast. It comes from his parents. He’s cut from the cloth. His mama and daddy are real. I never really met him, but I want to tell him, ‘I get you.’ ”
While Payton II doesn’t want to jinx his NBA title chances, he does know what it feels like to win. Gary Payton, who attended Game 5, won his lone NBA championship with the Miami Heat in 2006. Payton II was 13 years old at that time, and the Heat’s first NBA title brought the emotions out of him.
“Of course, I remember being in Dallas,” Payton II said. “The Heat won four in a row. They won it in Game 6. It was hectic. D-Wade was going crazy in Game 6, and they pulled it out. I had fun. I went on the court. I cried with Pops, with the family. That was a pretty big moment for Pops. We got back on the plane, went to Miami and had a good time.”
After the journey it took to get here, Payton II hopes to duplicate the moment with a championship of his own.