Klay Thompson found his way into the 2022 NBA Finals, just in time for Game 6
BOSTON — The most frantic moment of Game 5 for the Warriors came with just under four minutes left in the third quarter. Their grip on the series was slipping. They had led by 12 at halftime but lost the first eight minutes of the third quarter by 17 points. The Celtics had hit eight straight 3s. Boston had a five-point lead and all the momentum. The Warriors offense couldn’t find even a decent look.
Late in the shot clock from another nearly empty possession, Kevon Looney wandered inside the arc, uninterested in the shot but also unable to find an outlet. It was then that Grant Williams took a brief fall, which gave Klay Thompson some breathing space.
Looney threw a pass to Thompson, who uncorked a 3 in a split second. Some of his teammates call it a “Klay’s ball”, referring to his unique ability to catch and release in a flash. This shot was labeled by several in the organization as Game 5’s biggest mark, qualifying it as the Warriors’ biggest bucket of the season. It kept them tied down and turned the momentum at a time of desperation.
Thompson made another 3 a few possessions later. He made four in the final 16 minutes, and his five 3s in Game 5 were more than half of the team’s total of nine. After a slow start to this series — 10 of 33 shooting in the first two games — Thompson has settled in well with 25, 18 and 21 points in the last three games, making 41% of his 3.
If you believe in Game 6 Klay lore, the obvious question is whether this is a Thursday night volcanic eruption in Boston. Thompson adopted the nickname and persona. He admitted to researching those last Match 6 outbursts on YouTube during the wrestling period. In his only Game 6 this postseason against Memphis, he came out throwing, shooting 22 and 14 3s en route to 30 points in high usage.
But the aggressive Thompson hasn’t always been the best Thompson for the Warriors this season. He had plenty of over-eager nights when his craving for Frenzy points deflected the attack during stretches and – when he got cold – knocked down his efficiency and pace. If he’s hot on Thursday, he’d have a chance to add another chapter to his Game 6 legend. But if it isn’t, you wonder about the possible ramifications.
“It’s obviously a nickname I’ve earned,” Thompson said. “I want to be on top. At the same time, I don’t want to go out there and play hero ball. I’m just going to be there and be myself, do what I’ve been doing for the last few games. I know this will allow us to succeed.
Flip it over to the other side of the ball. Thompson’s defense is as essential to the end result as his mastery of the catch-and-shoot. The Warriors have regained control of this series at this end of the field, holding the Celtics to less than 100 points in their three wins.
“The last two games, (Klay) has been terrific defensively,” Steve Kerr said.
It’s been harder for Thompson to get back to his pre-injury defensive form. Her sweater, when it’s open and her feet are down, is deadlier than ever. But his lateral quickness will never be what it was in his late twenties, and his limited quickness has made him a liability on some nights of these playoffs.
But he has looked fresh and springy on this side of the pitch in the last two games. It helps that these Celtics don’t have a lightning-fast attacking guard, like Ja Morant, and instead rely on two bigger, stronger wings. Thompson is big and strong for a shooting guard. As he gets older, it makes sense for him to defend the biggest scorers instead of the fastest.
Steph Curry has been praised for his defensive work this season. This is his best, as he has combined more muscle with experience and extra effort. But the defensive pecking order in the backcourt, even after Thompson’s two devastating injuries, remains the same: Thompson takes the tougher job.
Just watch this footage from Game 4. Curry and Thompson split up in transition. Thompson initially prepares to defend Derrick White, who is dribbling at the top of the sideline. But Jayson Tatum is trailing and wants the ball. Curry sees this and warns Thompson to change assignments and go get Tatum.
Thompson does. The Celtics use White to screen and see if Curry will pass on him, but Thompson fights back, stays on Tatum then strips him down.
This is a vintage Andre Iguodala tape from Thompson. It wasn’t the only one he performed in that game either. A few minutes earlier, he flew this flight on a Marcus Smart player.
Thompson’s defensive tendencies never involved playing for takeout. He’s been a relentless presence in the perimeter who hasn’t compiled many blocks or steals, instead using his stamina and size to score bodies in tough shots. But as he got older, Thompson, like Iguodala before him, has relied more on those bands as a necessary counterbalance to fight young athletes using their physical advantages.
“I think I’ve always had hands,” Thompson said. “Not at Andre’s level, but I’ll sneak a few per game.”
“Game 5, he had a good one, and he was called for a foul,” Iguodala said. ” I have been there. You’re vulnerable when you go to the strip. With the naked eye, it’s really difficult to arbitrate.
But Thompson’s greatest defensive value remains his versatility, even if he can no longer slide step by step with faster point guards. When the Warriors were moving around matchups early in this series, needing to remove Draymond Green from Al Horford, they felt comfortable giving Thompson that defensive assignment, believing he could withstand the rare post- up from Horford. He has.
But Thompson remains a very switchable defender, especially in this series, as the Celtics — and Tatum in particular — operate at a more methodical pace and would rather isolate than pass. Watch Thompson here go from White to Horford to Tatum on a single possession.
Jaylen Brown is tougher cover for Thompson than Tatum because Brown is more of a straight-line attacker. That’s part of why the Warriors changed their initial matchups to get Green on Brown more often. But Thompson still has an internal belief and competitive fire that convinces him he can keep anyone on any given possession.
“The bigger the moment, the more locked up it is,” Iguodala said. “That’s the definition of a player.”
During a decisive defensive possession to close Game 4, Thompson slid with Brown, cut his drive and forced a scrambled turnover in the corner.
The Warriors would welcome a nuclear Game 6 from Thompson to close out the Celtics, but they don’t need it. They just need the quietly hard-hitting two-way strength that has shown in the last two wins.
(Photo: Cary Edmondson/USA Today)