Gary Payton II returned to the Portland Trail Blazers’ rotation on Monday night, in a 135-106 thrashing of the Detroit Pistons. The defensive stalwart came in and contributed right away, totaling seven points, four assists and a steal in north of 13 minutes played.
Jason Quick of the Athletic wrote an in-depth piece on Payton II’s long-awaited return, filled with quotes and nuggets for hoops fans to indulge in, including:
“‘I’ve been in darker, deeper spots than this,” Payton said, noting he has had a handful of other surgeries. “It was just frustrating. I knew it was a matter of time …’
[Chauncey] Billups said Payton was under a minutes restriction on Monday but wouldn’t specify what that was. Payton indicated the goal was to keep him at 12 minutes, Quick included.
‘I’ve already told him — if you need me in situations, I don’t care about them 12 minutes,” Payton said. “We have to do something at the end of games, or whatever, let’s just get it and get wins. I think we are on the same page with that — so is the training staff — so I’m not going to kill myself and I know that they won’t let me kill myself. So I’m available.’”
Payton missed the first 35 games of the season, yet his output was productive in accordance with his minutes and reminiscent of his averages from a season prior. Rust wasn’t a deterrent, as he came out and drilled a silky-smooth 3-pointer from the left wing on his first shot attempt.
His mental approach seemed to be intact as well, as his tenacity on the defensive end was seen and felt. There were no indications of yips or psychological roadblocks tied to his injury, albeit a one-game sample size.
In a championship 2021-22 season, Payton II became a recognizable name around the league, known in large part for his spectacular dunks and defense leading to fast breaks. He averaged 7.1 points per game on 61.6 percent shooting from the floor and mustered up 1.4 steals, all in 17.6 minutes per contest.
That break-sparking defense was front and center Monday night, as he deflected a pass and sacrificed his newly healed body for the loose ball, setting up Shaedon Sharpe for a trip to the line.
Regarding GP2’s comments about his injury history, Payton suffered a fractured left elbow in the 2022 Western Conference semifinals when he was struck over the head by Memphis Grizzlies wing Dillon Brooks in a zealous chase-down block attempt. Payton described his emotions following the injury as “annoyed,” detailed in an NBC article.
Having to deal with another injury that’s robbed him of nearly half a season has left Payton II hungry to get back on the floor. The “pest,” and “jack-of-all-trades,” characterized by coach Billups, fares to help a Trail Blazers team that is an underwhelming No. 23 in steals, No. 21 in forced turnovers, and No. 20 in defensive rating across the league.