BOSTON — Take a quick guess at who the Warriors’ two best players, by net rating, were over the final two games of the NBA Finals.
Steph Curry and Draymond Green?
They were great, but guess again.
Kevon Looney and Klay Thompson?
I like where your head’s at, but you’re off on this one.
No, the Warriors found big performances from two players off the bench — Gary Payton II and Jordan Poole.
The duo helped turn the Warriors’ biggest liability in this series — the minutes without Curry on the floor — into an unquestionable asset.
Through the first four games of the Finals, the Warriors and Celtics bench had each scored 109 points in those minutes.
Derrick White and Payton Pritchard (of all people) were killing the Dubs.
In Games 5 and 6, the Warriors bench outscored the Celtics’ 52-15.
Poole and Payton II flipped the script of the bench minutes and flipped the series in the Warriors’ favor.
Success wasn’t a surprise with Payton, though his presence on the court certainly was after he broke his elbow in the second round.
Anyone who saw the first few games of this series did not see him being one of the Warriors’ biggest positives in title-clinching games. Poole was downright unplayable through the first three games of the Finals: a mess on defense and uncontrollable on offense.
Poole was one of the main reasons the Warriors are in the NBA Finals, so Golden State — desperate for any shot creation outside of Curry — stuck with him, despite frustration being high.
The faith paid off. As these NBA Finals progressed, so did the former Michigan star, who turns 23 on Sunday.
He played 22 minutes and scored 29 points over the last two games of the series.
With Payton, it was, again, a shock that he was available for the series. Warriors coach Steve Kerr didn’t play him in Game 1 because he was deemed unready after breaking his elbow on Dillon Brooks’ flagrant foul in Game 2 of the Warriors’ second-round series with Memphis.
But his perimeter defense was sorely needed, and his ability to provide exactly what the Dubs needed at the power forward position on offense — despite being 6-foot-3 — could not be overlooked.
When Payton’s minutes increased, the Warriors won.
Game 2 was the start. Then Payton found it difficult to get onto the court in Games 3, and 4. When he found a better spot in the rotation for Games 5 and 6, the Warriors wiped the floor with Boston.
While Poole scored and scored and scored some more in his late-series push, Payton’s biggest impact came on defense — though he scored 21 points in the last two games.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were the Celtics’ only offensive creators in this series. Marcus Smart frequently auditioned for the role, but that effort proved laughable.
Boston’s two big wings who could put the ball on the floor and score at all three levels were a problem for the Dubs early in the series—the Celtics could force Golden State to switch good defenders off their wings.
But with Payton playing with the starting lineup, with Green at center, the Warriors had four players on the floor who could defend Tatum and Brown.
This allowed Curry—who was being drawn into action after action—to hang out in the corner on defense, while Tatum, in particular, tired out.
Both factors manifested late in Game 6 and proved to be huge advantages to the Dubs.
Not to underrate either on his weaker side of the court, but put Poole and Payton II together and you might have the perfect basketball player. A bit undersized, perhaps, but an offensive dynamo and defensive ace.
Deployed correctly, both can have impacts that well exceed what’s expected of their roles. We saw it throughout the regular season. We saw it earlier in the playoffs.
It took until the final two games of the season to see it in the NBA Finals, but when Poole and Payton arrived, the Warriors went to a new level. They were markedly better than Boston, and they have the trophy to prove it now.