SAN FRANCISCO — No team in the NBA is playing defense like the Warriors.
As the top-rated team in the league through seven games, coach Steve Kerr said his players are buying in, too.
“I think we’re starting to build an identity, and it’s very much defensive-minded,” Kerr said Wednesday after Golden State’s 114-92 win over Charlotte. “It’s kind of fun.”
The Warriors are allowing 97.8 points per 100 possessions, the best defensive efficiency in the NBA. The key stretch of their win Wednesday night featured an eight-minute run where they held the Hornets without a field goal and forced seven turnovers.
The sold-out crowd at Chase Center was all in, too.
“You could feel their excitement watching our defense,” Kerr said.
Defense was a calling card of last year’s Warriors team, but they’ve taken another step forward this season.
Golden State finished last season fifth in the NBA in defensive rating, then reacquired Andre Iguodala in free agency.
Another pivotal move came the weekend before the regular season, when Golden State cut down its roster and initially left open the 15th spot. Gary Payton II and Avery Bradley had been battling for the job, but both were cut.
Any team could have signed Payton. Instead, he re-upped on a new contract with Golden State (that doesn’t become guaranteed until Jan. 10) and has flourished into of the biggest contributors off the bench.
Payton has gone from the edge of the roster to one of Kerr’s first substitutions on most nights.
“We are reinvigorated in a lot of ways, and he’s part of that,” Kerr said. “We felt like we could maintain our defensive effort than a year ago, and I actually think we’re better now because of Gary and because of Andre Iguodala.”
The Warriors’ biggest statistical improvements from a year ago have come in defensive rebounding and steals, two categories in which Payton and his veteran teammates have played a role.
Golden State is averaging 40 defensive boards per game, second in the league and a 16% jump from last season. With 9.4 steals per game, the Warriors rank fifth in the league and have seen a similar improvement from a year ago.
Payton needed only 17 minutes to nab three steals against Charlotte, including a robbery of LaMelo Ball that led to a late fastbreak layup. Known for his bulldog defensive attitude, Payton has also made surprising contributions on the boards. (His hops have made the 6-foot-3 guard Stephen Curry’s primary lob target, highlighted by a posterizing finish over Kelly Oubre on an alley-oop feed from Curry in the first half.)
“This is what I’m here for, just come in and spark whatever we need to spark on the defensive end and get us going,” Payton said.
As for that highlight reel slam?
“It’s just two points,” he said. “I’m happy we got a few stops in there and got our team going and got our crowd into it. I think that really pushed us over the hump in the third.”
Payton is establishing himself this season as the id of Golden State’s tenacious, top-rated defense after five years of floating around the G League. Before that, though, he came to know Damion Lee through their workouts leading up to the 2016 NBA draft.
“We worked out together all pre-draft at Merritt College for two (or) three months,” Lee recalled Wednesday. “So I’ve know G for the past five years. Obviously he’s like one of my brothers. I’m so happy for him.”
In his fourth season with the Warriors, Lee is proving to be a reliable scoring threat off the bench — and contributed another 15 on Wednesday — while Payton is earning minutes in the Warriors’ game-finishing rotation because of his ball-hounding defense.
Both players are forcing their way into the Warriors rotation after rising through the G League.
Add in Juan Toscano-Anderson, who went undrafted before blossoming into his role with his hometown Warriors and played against Payton in the G League.
“It’s just been a journey,” Payton said. “Think back a few years ago, we were all in the G, trying to find our way to carve our way to a spot. It just so happens we’re all on the same team. It’s a great feeling. You put in the work, and this is what you get out of it.”