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During the two seasons Klay Thompson missed with a torn ACL and ruptured Achilles, the Golden State Warriors went 3-8 when Stephen Curry played and failed to get more than 20 points.
On Thursday night, in Golden State’s Game 5 against the Dallas Mavericks, Curry was 5-of-17 for 15 points.
Thanks to Klay, the team had no problem closing out the series in a 120-110 victory. From the first half onward, he provided a vivid reminder of how much he adds as one of the game’s elite second stars.
On a night when Curry, named the first Western Conference Finals MVP in league history, struggled to get going, Klay carried his squad back to the game’s biggest stage. In 37 minutes, he posted game highs in points (32), plus-minus (plus-18) and threes (eight). And he completely commanded the attention of the viewer in a way few ever have.
There’s just something about the way Thompson takes over a game. Whether it’s the quick release, the couple seconds of tension while the ball is in the air, the reaction of the Bay Area crowd or the giddiness that starts to emanate from the man himself, Klay’s heaters feel different. And Golden State’s ceiling is dramatically different when he’s available.
On Thursday, it was evident he was on one as early as the first quarter. By halftime, he had 19 points, which equaled his previous series high.
Klay. Thompson. 💦
19 points and 5 3-pointers so far for Klay! pic.twitter.com/QToIQbtPEw
For the first time in the conference finals, he looked like the pre-injury version of himself. And that’s not something to gloss over.
In the past, suffering a torn ACL or ruptured Achilles in your late 20s was borderline career-ending. Klay had to go through both in back-to-back seasons. He lost more than two full campaigns in his prime.
If there was any question about whether he was all the way back, Thursday should’ve answered it.
In the regular season, he posted his best box plus/minus since 2015-16 (“BPM is a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player’s contribution to the team when that player is on the court”). Ditto for this postseason.
But there were still possessions, stretches or entire games when it looked like he was knocking some rust off, particularly on the defensive end. And while he’s had a few of those outings this postseason, they’re fewer and further between than they were when he first returned.
Since March 12 (regular and postseason), he’s averaging 22.9 points and shooting 40.9 percent from three. Prior to that date, he was putting up 16.8 points and shooting 35.6 percent from deep.
And more important than the raw numbers is just the knowledge that Thompson’s outbursts are back on the table. In less time than it takes to get off your couch and refill your drink, he can seize control of a game. And he doesn’t have to be on the ball to do so.
Whether Golden State takes on the Boston Celtics or Miami Heat in the Finals, it’ll face plenty of plus perimeter defenders, but Thompson provides a challenge none of them have had to face this postseason.
While Curry and Draymond Green do most of the ball-handling, Thompson is busy running defenders ragged. His perpetual off-ball motion, whether off screens or just plain cuts, is almost impossible to keep up with for 24 seconds. When you move around like that alongside an engine as potent as Curry, you’re going to get open looks.
The only way for Boston or Miami to prevent that is to completely sell out when Thompson pops for the ball. Of course, that’ll probably give Curry easier opportunities. As painful as it might be, in that pick-your-poison scenario, you have to go with Thompson. And he can make you pay.
The only decent answer is to switch every screen, on and off the ball. The Celtics might be the best team in the league at that, but the Warriors have ways to make them pay. Curry, Thompson and Green aren’t mismatch and isolation hunters, but no one plays read-and-react offense better. All three are adept at slipping screens. Thompson and Curry are masters at faking a screen before flaring out for a three. Those two, of course, have to be respected as pull-up threats too.
And all of that works better when both are available.
Since the Warriors’ first championship season (2014-15), they’re plus-16.4 points per 100 possessions when the Splash Brothers are on the floor. They’re plus-9.4 when Curry plays without Thompson.
In case you’re looking for some context on that 7.0-point difference, the Utah Jazz’s third-ranked net rating this season was exactly plus-7.0.
Over the same eight-year stretch, the Warriors have now made it to six NBA Finals. The last time Klay appeared in a season and failed to make the Finals was 2013-14. His return coinciding with another trip to the last series of the playoffs feels fitting.
Curry is a top 10-15 player all-time. Draymond is a middle linebacker on defense who can also create about as well as any point forward in league history. But the Warriors aren’t a dynasty without one of the most dynamic No. 2 options in league history.