The Golden State Warriors lost one of their ace defensive weapons when Gary Payton II was fouled hard by memphis grizzlies wing Dillon Brooks and fractured his elbow on the landing. He’ll be re-evaluated in two weeks, which is well past the conclusion of this series.
Payton is responsible for guarding Grizzlies star Ja Morant, and the difference was noticeable after he got hurt. Morant finished with 47 points in the Grizzlies’ Game 2 victory.
Now, the Warriors have to not only figure out which defender will guard Morant, but who will replace Payton in the rotation and how does it change the landscape of the series.
The Commercial Appeal caught up with CJ HolmesWarriors beat writer and reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.
AC: What are your early impressions on this series?
Holmes: Heading into this series we knew it was going to be a competitive one, but physical play by both teams has taken it to another level. The team that’s ultimately able to win this series will be the one that proves to be the toughest, both mentally and physically. Between the hard fouls and trash-talk, the Western Conference semifinals have been a slugfest in every sense of the word.
AC: Do you think Dillon Brooks deserves a suspension for his flagrant foul-2 on Gary Payton II in Game 2?
Holmes: Absolutely. As a former college athlete, I understand the unspoken code among basketball players that Warriors head coach Steve Kerr was referring to after Game 2. What Brooks did was out of line and could potentially cost Payton, an unrestricted free agent this summer, some money when contract negotiations roll around. There’s a way to play physically without making bone-headed, dirty decisions. Clearly Brooks didn’t understand that, which is why he’ll be suspended by the league without pay for Game 3 Saturday at Chase Center. Even if Payton wasn’t injured on the play, Brooks’ suspension is still warranted.
AC: With Payton out, who is the most likely player to get the primary Ja Morant assignment?
Holmes: The Warriors say Payton’s left elbow fracture and ligament damage will be re-evaluated in two weeks, but our sources say he’ll be out for at least a month. Either way, he won’t be back on the court for the remainder of the Western Conference semifinals. Following Game 2, Kerr said that veteran forward Andre Iguodala will get the next crack at Morant, but the team announced on Thursday that his neck injury will be re-evaluated in one week, so he’s out. I don’t have much confidence that Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson or Jordan Poole can stay in front of Morant for extended minutes. So in my mind, the next logical choice is Andrew Wiggins. Despite Wiggins’ up and down regular season offensively, his defense of him has been an underrated constant. At the very least, Wiggins can provide some size, length and athleticism when defending Morant. But there’s no real way to stop Morant. The Warriors can only hope Wiggins is up for the challenge of slowing him down.
AC: How has Klay Thompson looked on defense to you since returning to play after missing two seasons?
Holmes: Thompson was a high-level defender before the injuries. Since returning in February, not as much. His lateral quickness from him just hasn’t been there consistently and understandably so. There were games throughout the regular season when teams were hunting Thompson in isolation because they recognized his limitations. Although Thompson is feeling more like his old self than him each game, he still has ways to go at the defensive end of the court.
AC: Do you believe the Warriors have multiple guys capable of defending Ja Morant?
Holmes: I don’t. But then again, which teams in the league do? As the Western Conference semifinals continue, the best Golden State can do is try to throw different looks at Morant, switching back and forth between man-to-man and zone, send well-timed double-teams, and hope to confuse him or tire him out. Payton was the only player on the roster equipped to handle Morant over extended minutes. Iguodala has proven capable in the past, but he isn’t healthy. Without them, the Warriors will have to adjust their entire defensive game plan as far as containing Morant.
AC: Offensively, what changes for Golden State without GP2?
Holmes: Absolutely nothing. While the Warriors benefit from any offensive production they can get out of Payton, his true value of him comes at the defensive end. Curry, Thompson and Poole remain Golden State’s top offensive threats. For them, it just comes down to making shots. The Warriors had one of their worst 3-point shooting performances ever in Game 2, and that needs to change if they hope to win this series.
AC: What other players should people be aware of to step up now that Golden State lost Payton?
Holmes: Keep an eye out for Wiggins. Although he struggled with consistency throughout the regular season, the first-time All-Star has quietly put together a solid postseason. He’s been relatively efficient, his rebounding from him has been a difference-maker. And like I said, his defensive effort has been underrated. With Payton out, I expect him to be assigned to defend Morant in extended minutes. Perhaps Payton’s absence also opens the door for rookie Jonathan Kumiga to play a larger role at both ends.