OAKLAND, Calif. – Klay Thompson is known as “The Electrician” in China, a nickname that – with the backing of his shoe company, Anta – has caught on in recent weeks in a country where the usually mild-mannered All-Star has embraced a different, bathing-in-a-tub-of-gold-sneakers persona. Thompson has begun to embrace the blue-collar moniker, which he earned because of his ability to energize an arena with his timely, titillating shotmaking.
After another career-defining Game 6 performance with the Golden State Warriors facing elimination in the Western Conference finals, Thompson was a tad worn down from doing what he enjoys the least about his job – talking about himself – but lit up when a representative from the Chinese social media network, Weibo, presented him with a yellow hard hat outside the interview room. As he lifted the hat out of a plastic bag, Thompson marveled at the blue light in the front. He smiled, tried it on for fun and proudly exited Oracle Arena with the perfect symbol for his no-frills approach to the game.
The Houston Rockets were fixing to turn out the lights on the Warriors’ season and their fledgling dynasty, building an early 17-point lead. But they couldn’t make it dark enough for Thompson not to find that proverbial switch to ignite an improbable 46-point swing. The Thompson-charged rally resulted in a 115-86 victory that suddenly has the Warriors looking like a team that is not only capable of winning a Game 7 on the road but also snag that third title in four years.
“I don’t know if I was born for it, but I definitely worked my butt off to get to this point,” Thompson said after scoring a game-high 35 points before correcting himself. “I mean, I guess you could say I was born for it. I guess everything happens for a reason. That felt good. I just wanted to play with as much passion as I could.”
Taking a trip to the land of What If is always fun because the imagination remains undefeated. And when it comes to the world of professional basketball, there are always those moments when you have to wonder how much franchises and legacies would be altered if pingpong balls or jump shots bounced a different way.
In the modern NBA, Thompson’s performance in Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference finals in Oklahoma City did more than any other event to alter the competitive balance of the league. The Warriors were on the ropes back then, staring down the end of their 73-win dreams until Thompson – armed with that textbook stroke and some lucky Yoda socks – buried 11 3-pointers to save the season. What If Klay hadn’t erupted? We’ll never know. But winning that series essentially eliminated a potential rival, slamming down the Thunder’s championship window when Kevin Durant came to the Bay two months later.
Thompson’s heroics that night, part of a comeback from a 3-1 deficit against Durant’s Thunder, was a topic the 2017 Finals MVP refused to address. “Next question,” Durant jokingly said Saturday when someone asked him about his memories of that game. And, since the Warriors turned around and blew their own 3-1 lead in the Finals against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Stephen Curry added, “I think we both blocked that whole year out of our memory.”
Durant’s arrival brought another title to town last season and seemingly set up the Warriors for an unchallenged run toward a repeat and possible dynasty. But this series against the Rockets has exposed some of the flaws in that thinking, as the Warriors over-dependence on Durant had them fiending for his isolation hero ball and abandoning the ball movement that made them great – and attractive to Durant in the first place.
With the whole experiment set for an abrupt and disappointing end that would’ve brought into question the need for such a pairing, the Warriors went back to the originators – Thompson and his brother in splash, Curry – to keep alive what they’ve attempted to build. Thompson and Curry are the last links to the Warriors’ not-too-distant lottery past, the ones who, along with Draymond Green, are the least willing to have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become a forever team crumble.
“I feel like we have the best team in the world and the most fun team in the world to watch when we’re pushing that ball, getting defensive stops and making plays,” Thompson said. “We’ve got too much talent not just to hit singles, like Coach always says. Trust the next man ahead of us. It will end up working in our favor most of the time.”
Durant scored 23 points but struggled with his shot and appeared to be pressing, as he did the night Thompson ruined his last-best chance to reach the NBA Finals with Oklahoma City. But this time, he was on the side with Thompson and Curry, who turned a basketball game into a spiritual revival with fans catching the Holy Ghost with every catch-and-shoot. And once Thompson started shouting, “We ain’t going home,” there was nothing the Rockets could do about it – especially with Chris Paul sidelined with a hamstring injury.
If they are able to complete the comeback that Green has already guaranteed and Paul is unable to play or considerably hobbled, the Warriors will hear about how they got lucky. Paul’s absence was glaring during the Rockets’ collapse but luck is an essential element to almost any championship run. The Warriors avoided Kawhi Leonard for all but three quarters of one game in the conference finals last season and no Kevin Love and one game of Kyrie Irving in 2015. The Cavaliers benefited from a Green lapse and an Andrew Bogut knee injury in 2016. But even with an unfortunate break going their way, the Warriors still have to finish the job. The final score doesn’t reflect how much the Rockets, with Paul serving as a de-facto coach on the sidelines, tested the nerves of the Warriors fans before Thompson brought the fire and electricity on both ends, harassing a longtime rival in James Harden and producing four steals.
“He stepped up in a major way for us,” Green told Yahoo Sports about Thompson. “I don’t think the shots were as tough as some of the ones he hit in OKC, but it was good for him to get going like that. But what he did defensively allowed him to do what he did offensively and allowed us to do what we did offensively. The way he got into the ball, changed the pace of the game, picking up full court, it allowed our offense to get going. It was amazing for all us.”
What If Klay hadn’t erupted again against the Rockets? The Warriors would be confronting much earlier than expected some uncomfortable situations about the makeup of the team, and whether the investment in a top-heavy roster of four All-Stars is worth it to maintain “light-years” separation from the rest of the league. But Thompson did and those concerns can be delayed for another two days, possibly until the summer, or maybe never.
Thompson carries himself as one who is carefree and oblivious to pressure but he holds himself to a high standard and is so hard on himself that he once drove home after a loss to the Denver Nuggets in his full uniform. One of the league’s top two-way players, Thompson is easily the best player to never be the best player on his own team, but that would easily change if he ever found himself on at least half of the teams in the league. His willingness to be a supporting actor who occasionally outshines the headliners is what makes the Warriors so unique.
“Klay doesn’t worry much about repercussions. He doesn’t worry about judgment and results. I think he just loves to play,” coach Steve Kerr said. “He’s so comfortable in his own skin. I just think he wants to go out there and hoop, and doesn’t worry about much else.”
It might not be long before Thompson can add “Game 6 Klay” to the list of nicknames he’s already accrued, including “China Klay.” Green told Yahoo Sports that amongst his teammates, Thompson is known as something else: “Killa Klay. That’s what we call him.”
Thompson hasn’t ended the Rockets just yet. Game 7 is Monday and he’ll have to pull out the hard hat one more time.
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