For the past three-and-a-half years, there has been a near-constant questioning of Klay Thompson’s legs.
First, it was whether he could return to his top form after his ACL injury. Then, it was questioned if he could do the same after tearing his right Achilles tendon before the 2021 season. When he finally returned to the court a few weeks shy of a year ago, the question after two-and-a-half years off was if he had enough spring, enough juice, to be an impact player for the Warriors.
Thompson has answered the questions.
Approaching the one-year anniversary of his return to the court, he’s proven his legs are strong enough to carry a team.
It’s important to note that Thompson was a vital player for the Warriors on their title run last year. When he plays, they win.
But with Steph Curry out since Dec. 14, the Warriors have needed the old Klay Thompson — the impossibly incendiary shooter, the dogged defender.
In Thompson’s last five games, he’s been incredible on the offensive end, averaging 33.6 points per game — including a 54-point game against the Hawks on Monday. What’s more telling: He’s moving around the court with a fluidity we had not seen since his return, bringing back his trademark punctuality. No one in the NBA finds themselves in the right place at the right time better than a full-strength Thompson.
“When he gets hot, there’s not too many players that can score like him,” Kevon Looney said of Thompson.
The Warriors haven’t needed Thompson’s old defensive skills for the majority of the time Curry has been sidelined. Remember, Thompson was once the Warriors’ defensive ace; the man they’d sic on the opposition’s top perimeter player. You can credit the emergence of Jonathan Kuminga and the steady professionalism of Donte DiVincenzo for Thompson being able to cede that role.
Yet there Thompson was on Monday, dropping 54 points while playing 46 minutes of high-energy defense and switching onto Atlanta’s Trae Young, forcing him into awful shots, and locking down Dejounte Murray.
“It’s a huge accomplishment for myself,” Thompson said. “Seeing [Atlanta broadcaster and Hall of Famer] Dominique Wilkins before the game, and talking to him, telling him how much of an inspiration he was for me, coming back from an Achilles [injury] to average in the high 20s after a decade of playing. That inspired me to be myself.”
That’s been the big question for Thompson: “Who am I?”
The future Hall of Famer’s struggles were obviously physical. But there was a mental aspect to his recovery as well.
Thompson isn’t a big talker, and he can come off as aloof and disengaged to those who don’t know him. Don’t be fooled — Warriors fans must know by now that he’s as fiery a competitor as anyone in the league. His focus — as intense as Draymond Green’s — is always there when necessary. And he’s a thinker. That picture-perfect shot wouldn’t be worth much without his on- and off-court IQ.
In this era of mental health awareness, Thompson has been open about his struggles during his return to form. For instance: This past summer, he didn’t scrimmage five-on-five. The last time he had scrimmaged full-court away from the Warriors, he tore his Achilles.
It’s an ongoing battle for Thompson — body vs. mind. And the early portion of this season showed rust and a player trying to force his way back to his old form. It left shots short, opportunities to attack missed, and Thompson frustrated.
His play, as of late, shows a new level of alignment.
“I’m getting better with every game. I know I’ll be more consistent as the season goes on… from not getting the live reps I probably needed,” Thompson said. “Thirty games under my belt, I’m feeling just wonderful.”
For Green, Thompson’s return to old form has everything to do with his teammate letting go and letting the game find him.
“You don’t have to be the same Klay that you once were before. When you understand that and you buy into that, you become the Klay that you were,” Green said. “We’ve all talked about this our entire lives, which is letting the game come to you, and when you’re as competitive as he is, when you’re as good as he is, it’s tough sometimes.
“You go through those things for two years, everybody doubting you — that same fire towards that doubt is what made you Klay Thompson. Everyone wants to see that go. That doesn’t just go. You don’t just lose that. That’s embedded in you.”
He’s settled down. He’s not chasing it anymore. It’s falling right into his lap. When you’re that good, that’s usually what happens.”
The Warriors won’t need this recent kind of play from Thompson every night this season — they can’t even get it every night, as Thompson does not play in games scheduled back-to-back. At some point this season, the Dubs will have a full squad. That point might come as soon as Jan. 13, when Curry is expected to return.
Andrew Wiggins will return to the lineup as the team’s perimeter defensive ace — a role he picked up the last two years — with Kuminga, his heir apparent, by his side. Add this Thompson into that mix, with Green behind them, and the Warriors’ defense, ranked 13th in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions, could be a top-10 unit by the end of the year.
And we all know what Thompson can be next to Curry. But next to Jordan Poole, who has shown he can play Warriors basketball as of late, and the Dubs’ offense has 3-point shooting firepower that is unmatched by any team in the league.
Thompson finding his elite form once again creates a shift for the Warriors. It’s been a backstop against Curry’s absence; it’s a midseason pickup — the kind the Dubs could never manage.
The only question that should be asked of Thompson these days is simple: Can he, winner of four titles in the last five seasons he has finished, make it five in six?
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