OAKLAND — No one ever worries about Klay Thompson, the sometimes-spacey but ever-dependable Warriors cornerstone. They don’t worry about Klay when he misses 13 shots like he did in Game 1 of the NBA Finals and they don’t get concerned when Kyrie Irving is scoring at will against him.
After his shooting woes in the opener, Golden State coach Steve Kerr likened him to a baseball player hitting line drives at the shortstop. Kerr didn’t want him to change anything, and knowing Thompson, Kerr knew he wouldn’t even think about doing anything differently anyway.
Sure enough in Game 2, Thompson scored 22 points on 12 shots. It was a remarkably efficient night buried in a blowout that also featured MVP-caliber performances from Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. So it goes.
Thompson’s role in this series has been defense. Specifically, he is tasked with guarding Irving, who happens to be the NBA’s greatest one-on-one practitioner at the moment. Guarding Irving is a tough ask for any defender, but Thompson carries several attributes in his favor. He has size, speed, and balance. He’s also tenacious.
“Klay's perfect for that,” Kerr said. “One of our coaches said he's like the yellow lab who just keeps chasing the ball like all day. He doesn't think, he just chases Kyrie all day. And then he gets an open shot and he just shoots all day. That's Klay. That's perfect. I think he's been brilliant. But Kyrie has been amazing and he's hitting a lot of tough shots.”
Thompson locked Irving down in the first two games, but when Irving went supernova in Game 3 and threatened to steal a victory in the closing minute, Thompson was there to deny him and keep the Warriors’ unprecedented unbeaten streak alive.
The postgame focus was on Durant, whose end-to-end three-pointer put Golden State ahead to stay and will live forever in Finals’ montages. There was not a single question about Thompson’s defense directed at Kerr in the postgame. Nor were there any queries about his 30-point effort. So it goes.
They say that Thompson is blessed with a clear mind, which is a great attribute for someone in his position. His job is to move constantly on offense, even if he’s not getting shots, and then be ready when the time comes, if it even does. No one does it better, even if nobody really notices.
“Having an uncluttered mind is so important for a shooter,” Golden State assistant coach Ron Adams told me after a practice earlier in the series. “And to have the confidence with your teammates that when you shoot they think it’s going in, that’s pretty special. It helps. It’s much better than having a lot of competing signals.”
Way back in the summer, when we were all coming to terms with what Durant’s presence would mean for this Golden State team, Thompson was asked about sacrifice. The implication being that he would probably have to give up some shots and that would trickle down to other things like All-Star appearances or All-NBA nods.
“I feel like I get enough attention,” Thompson said that July day during USA Basketball minicamp. “It doesn’t matter to me. You get all the attention if you win.”
The Warriors are a superteam primarily because they have two former Most Valuable Players on their roster in Curry and Durant. Add in the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year in Green and a leading Sixth Man candidate in Andre Iguodala, and they are obviously loaded. “Best I’ve ever seen,” said a veteran personnel man.
Whether they are better than any of the other great teams that have come before them is really beside the point. They are a perfect team for now and that should be enough. But of course it’s not, and for some reason the players of the past can’t get beyond the idea that these Warriors are as good, or better, than them. It’s becoming a tiring debate.
What they can take from their predecessors is the knowledge that it wouldn’t work if selfishness and ego got in the way. That’s been the undoing of more than a few superteam contenders over the years. Much of the emphasis has been on Curry and Durant finding workable ways to blend their unique scoring talents together. Their facility with one another is so seamless that even the adjustment process yielded very few bumps.
That makes Thompson’s role in all of this even more intriguing. He doesn’t seek the spotlight, but he doesn’t shy away from the moment either. He works his ass off on both ends of the floor and never complains about the physical toll. He rarely gets hurt, and if he did, he wouldn’t make a big deal about that either.
The Warriors wouldn’t be the Warriors without Thompson, and as it turned out, his role didn’t change all that much. He averaged a few more shots and few more points and made another All-Star team. He lost his spot on the All-NBA team, but that didn’t seem to bother him.
“Guys realize that winning trumps all and a lot of guys have been in this league for a long time,” Thompson said. “They’ve been through different organizations and they know when they come here everybody has to sacrifice a little something because we’ve got so many good players. They know that winning means more than playing time and any gaudy stats that you can ever put up.”
When the playoffs rolled around, he knew that he would be tasked with guarding the likes of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Gordon Hayward, and Irving. His scoring would take care of itself, as it always does. I asked Warriors GM Bob Myers if he’s ever had to chat with Thompson about his role and he confirmed that there was no need.
“It’s interesting,” Myers said. “He’s very competitive. He doesn’t show it like Draymond shows it. His personality is to hold himself to a high standard. He’s kind of a perfectionist. At the same time he wants to play well for his teammates. That’s what motivates him. His demeanor is as long as we’re winning, I’m good.”
The Warriors are one victory away from winning it all again. They wouldn’t be in this position without Thompson and his role going forward is critical. He’ll have to make shots and limit Irving in Game 5 if the Warriors are to clinch the title on their home court.
That would keep a lot of players up at night, but not Klay Thompson. No one ever worries about him anyway, and so it goes.