Return to Warriors 'pretty freaking close' to title run for Klay Thompson
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SAN FRANCISCO — The smile spread wide on Klay Thompson’s face. He had plenty of reasons to show such joy.
After spending a combined 2 1/2 years healing an ACL in his left knee and an Achilles tendon in his right leg, Klay Thompson finally played in an NBA game again. The Warriors secured a 96-82 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday at Chase Center. Before and after the game, teammates, coaches and fans showered him with cheers and praise amid pre-game warmups, line-up introductions and once he left the court.
But as Thompson glanced down on the interview table, the Warriors’ guard also smiled for something else so simple that he could not do for the past 941 days.
“I’m just so happy I could even look at the stat sheet and see my name there,” Thompson said. “I see my shot attempts, makes and all the stats again.”
What did the stat lines say in Thompson’s first game since June 13, 2019 when he tore the ACL in his left knee against the Toronto Raptors in a decisive Game 6 loss of The Finals?
Thompson had 17 points while shooting 7-of-18 from the field and 3-of-8 from 3-point range along with three fouls, two turnovers and one block in nearly 20 minutes. While the box score captured some of his shooting brilliance and anticipated rust, it did not capture Thompson opening the game finishing a floater at the basket and later throwing down a one-handed dunk.
But after putting his entire performance in context and soaking up all the emotions he felt before and after his return, Thompson became nearly as giddy as when he once hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy three times.
“I’m not going to say it was the equivalent to winning a championship, but man, it was pretty freaking close,” Thompson said. “There were times, in the past, where you second guess yourself. You [wonder] if you are going to be the same player or have the same explosion or whatever term and just to be able to go out there and shoot the ball and play defense and compete. Man, it was special.”
Thompson more than ready for this return
What made this moment so special traces back to his history with the Warriors organization.
In a way, Thompson’s latest game was 10 1/2 years in the making. The Warriors selected him with the 11th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft and saw him blossom into one of the NBA’s best two-way players. The Warriors showed further trust in Thompson when they traded Monta Ellis to the Milwaukee Bucks a year later. The Warriors showed more devotion to Thompson two years later when they declined to deal him for Kevin Love. Thompson then proved the Warriors right by helping them win three NBA titles in five Finals appearances.
During that journey, Warriors fans fell in love with Thompson for more than just his dramatic shooting and dependable defense. They appreciated Thompson’s low maintenance personality and aversion to the spotlight. They became enamored with both his down-to-Earth personality and ability to produce unintentional comedy. They related to his hobbies, that include hanging out with his beloved, dog, Rocco, and his family while enjoying the outdoors on his boat and at the park.
“He’s provided some of the biggest thrills for these fans over the last decade they have ever experienced,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “He sort of feels like one of them. Everybody connects with him because he is authentic. He’s just Klay. I think everybody appreciates that.”
They also appreciated Thompson for other qualities. Thompson showed accountability for taking ownership in the Warriors losing Game 7 to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals after nursing a 3-1 series lead. Thompson showed loyalty after stressing he wanted to remain a “Warrior for life” well before he became a free agent three years ago. Thompson showed his vulnerability tore the ACL in his left knee during the 2019 NBA Finals only to rupture the tendon in his right Achilles on the day of the 2020 NBA Draft.
“I love them for it,” Thompson said. “We’ve been through the highest of highs or the lowest of lows, whether it’s losing Game 7 of a record-setting season or winning three championships. We’ve done everything together – whether it’s celebrate or hurt from the losses. So, they feel for me, and I feel for them.”
But Thompson’s return was also 2 1/2 years in the making ever since he lasted played a basketball game. The Warriors played 177 regular-season games and two Play-In Tournament games while Thompson mended.
During that time, Thompson admittedly nursed both frustration with staying sidelined and self-doubt on if he would ever become the same player that made five All-Star appearances, shattered shooting records and became an All-Defensive selection in 2018-19.
“When you tear a ligament or an ACL, it just takes so much time to build up that muscle again,” Thompson said. “Then you have the thoughts, ‘Will I have the same pop? Will I have the same responsive reflexes?’”
That negative thinking often fizzled away. Thompson relied on sources that contributed toward having a positive attitude. He trusted the Warriors’ medical staff with both his training and dieting. He spent time with family. He hung out with Rocco. He read books, played chess and enjoyed his boat. He consulted with Tony Robbins, a renowned motivational speaker.
“Tough times don’t last; tough people do,” Thompson said. “That’s what I really learned.”
No wonder Thompson seemed at ease leading into his return.
The Warriors cleared him for five-on-five drills in mid-November before scrimmaging with their NBA G League team in Santa Cruz. Thompson also scrimmaged with the Warriors’ starting lineup 1 1/2 weeks ago in Denver after the league postponed the team’s game there. Kerr already had various talks with Thompson about his initial conservative workload, new out-of-bounds plays and updated terminology.
Besides, Thompson has become averse to pressure-packed moments. He never shied away from taking shots during both shooting streaks and slumps. Thompson famously scored a career-high 60 points against Indiana on Dec. 5, 2016 after missing morning shootaround because he overslept.
“He just loves the game so much that he’s able to play and go and immerse himself in the game and do so even in the most pressurized environments,” Kerr said.
Nonetheless, Kerr predicted Thompson’s return “might be the most difficult he plays in” because of the long layoff and “all of that frustration built in.” Kerr added, “It’s going to be incredibly emotional for the rest of us. So, imagine what it’ll be like for Klay.”
It was emotional, no doubt. But nerve-wracking? No way.
During this past weekend, Thompson put himself in a good mental head space to avoid that. After practice on Saturday, Thompson went on his boat and then enjoyed a full night’s sleep. On Sunday, Thompson then refused to go on the internet or look at his phone. Instead, he spent time with his family and Rocco at a park and meditated to prepare for the game.
“I knew it was going to be electric tonight,” Thompson said. “I tried to visualize this moment for years really, and gosh it was worth every second.”
Was it ever.
Thompson’s teammates all wore his No. 11 jersey during pre-game warmups. Warriors star Stephen Curry then intentionally completed his pre-game warmup before and during Thompson’s.
“Before he got hurt, I usually left the court by the time he was coming on,” Curry said. “I got to feel that energy when he got out there.”
Once Thompson took the court an hour before tipoff, Warriors fans flooded the arena’s courtside seats and cheered for him as if he were competing in a playoff game. Thompson raised his arms to entice the crowd to cheer louder. After Thompson sank his first six shots, the volume level increased. And then once Thompson completed his workout, he darted toward the entrance tunnel amid another flood of roars.
Nearly 45 minutes later, the arena played a 90-second tribute video that featured some of his highlights. The Warriors then shifted their starting lineup introductions. Normally, the public address announcer says Curry’s name last. This time, he saved Thompson for last. As Curry said, “I got goosebumps outside the court just watching.” And Thompson?
“That was a very special moment,” Thompson said. “I’ll never forget this night, I’ll never forget the reception the Warrior fans gave us, especially myself. Gosh, it was fun. It was worth every single day of being away and in that squat rack or on that shuttle board and all the conditioning days. It was worth every single moment.”
Another memorable moment then happened. Warriors forward Draymond Green was announced as a starter. But seven seconds into the game, Green committed a foul before leaving the court. The reason? Green experienced tightness in his left calf during his pre-game warmup. Although Kerr expressed confidence “this is a short-term thing,” he determined “there was no way we were going to risk playing him.”
Kerr described Green as “devastated” for not being able to play with Thompson during return. But Kerr added that Green “wanted to be a part of the starting lineup.” So, Kerr alerted Cavaliers coach J.B Bickerstaff while Warriors general manager Bob Myers informed Cavs general manager Koby Altman about the team’s plans. Cleveland accepted the arrangement. So did Green, even though it meant the box score would read that he had zero points, rebounds and assists, numbers that would count against his season averages.
“Draymond only cares about one thing, and that’s winning,” Thompson said. “He does things that don’t show up in the box score. I think real basketball heads know that. Draymond is a winner. He has been a winner at every level. Very selfless as a teammate, and it just felt right to have him out there even for just a second. I appreciate him. I can’t wait to compete with him again. He’s such a great cerebral player.”
That didn’t sap Thompson’s enthusiasm in his return, though. On the first play of the game, Thompson curled off a screen and drove to the basket before finishing with a floater.
“I was so excited that I saw a lane to the basket so I just took the opportunity,” Thompson said. “It was a really tough floater. After that went in, I thought it was going to be one of those nights where I might be unconscious.”
That didn’t surprise Thompson’s coaches and teammates. Kerr forewarned his players not to feel too much pressure in passing him the ball because Thompson knows how to create shots for himself. It did surprise the Warriors he took that floater to open the game.
“I drew the first play up not for him, but for him to catch it and move it on,” Kerr said. “I should’ve known better.”
Curry added that Kerr originally assigned Thompson to pass the ball as a decoy so that Curry could come off a screen. As Kerr drew up the play, Thompson interrupted and pleaded to have a catch-and-shoot opportunity along the baseline. Curry shared that Kerr stumbled before throwing up his hands and giving Thompson permission to shoot if he got the ball. As Curry mused, “It was a good moment to get off his shoulders.”
Contrary to what Thompson predicted he didn’t go on a shooting streak. He missed his next four shots, including three from deep. He played in only the first 4:23 of the game before spending the first half of the second quarter riding a stationary bike.
Shortly after Thompson returned with 4:23 remaining, he showed something unexpected. From the top of the key, Thompson crossed up Cavs center Jarrett Allen after he reached. Then, Thompson weaved past Cleveland guard Darius Garland. After that, Thompson jumped past Dylan Windler and Lauri Markkanen for a one-handed dunk.
The entire Warriors bench leaped out of their seats. So did the 18,064 fans.
“It’s funny because I didn’t dunk the whole two months of scrimmaging,” Thompson said. “It felt so good to throw that down. I did not expect that.”
“I will remember that dunk,” Warriors forward Kevon Looney said. “My whole time here when Klay had perfect knees and Achilles, I don’t remember him dunking like that.”
In fairness, Thompson has dunked earlier in his 10-year career. He even placed bets with former Warriors center Zaza Pachulia over who could throw down the most dunks. Those moments rarely happened, though.
“I just saw the rim. Lucky for me, I threw it down with authority and that felt really good. It felt really good, guys,” Thompson said. “Knowing I can still do that? Not just being able to get to my spots and rise up and shoot? It’s only up from here.”
Though Thompson offered a highlight reel, he also offered some gaffes. His shot looked rusty and he even airballed a step-back 3. On one play, Thompson got called for traveling. And on another play, Cleveland guard Lamar Stevens drove right past Thompson along the baseline for a dunk.
“He’s going to have to work his way through that for the next few games and continue to build up his endurance,” Kerr said. “It’ll come. The rhythm and timing will come. But it’s not going to be smooth sailing.”
Thompson didn’t show too much turbulence, though.
Kerr described Thompson’s defense “as solid” after showing glimpses he could become an elite defender again. Thompson muscled with Markkanen in the post. Thompson blocked Markkanen from behind on one play. Thompson believed he deserved another block when he stuffed Garland from behind on a different play, only to receive a whistle for his third foul. Thompson may have walked away from the official in frustration. But he hardly expressed frustration on what all the defensive plays meant.
“I felt great defensively,” Thompson said. “I felt strong. I’m excited for the challenges ahead guarding the best guys in the league again.”
Thompson has a chance to prove that when the Warriors (30-9) visit the Memphis Grizzlies (28-14) on Tuesday. For now, the Warriors just enjoyed what they saw in Thompson’s debut.
After Thompson exited the floor with 2:41 remaining, Warriors fans gave him a standing ovation. They then chanted his name repeatedly before yelling, “We want Klay.” Kerr did not oblige out of want to conserve Thompson’s workload, but that did not dampen the mood.
Once the final buzzer sounded, Thompson soaked in the atmosphere. He hugged Love, who both had Finals clashes and grew up together in Portland. Thompson hugged his teammates. After Thompson entered an arena hallway, Warriors cheerleaders showered him with another warm reception. Then in the locker room, the Warriors presented Thompson with the game ball. Kerr noted the typically reserved Thompson said nothing.
“It’s been a long time. Two-and-a-half years,” Kerr said. “But it seemed normal to see him there and see him with his teammates.”
It also seemed normal that Thompson would take 18 shots in only 20 minutes. “That is so Klay Thompson,” Curry cracked. All of which caused Thompson to smile one more time after scanning the box score.
“Nothing’s really changed,” Thompson said, before walking out of the interview room. But something has changed. No longer does Thompson have to wait as long to play basketball again.
Said Thompson: “I’m just very, very happy right now.”
Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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