OAKLAND, Calif. – Following his latest performance in a big game, scoring a game-high 35 points and hitting nine three-pointers to help the Golden State Warriors keep their season alive with a 115-86 victory over the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, Klay Thompson was asked if was born for these kinds of moments.
“I don’t know if I was born for it, but I definitely worked my butt off to get to this point,” Thompson said.
Then he paused, and thought about it.
“I mean, I guess you could say I was born for it,” he said, as the interview room inside Oracle Arena erupted with laughter. “I guess everything happens for a reason.”
That, in a nutshell, is the Klay Thompson Experience.
For all of the attention that is paid to the Warriors, very little is actually paid to their fourth all-star. There’s Stephen Curry, the two-time MVP and arguably the greatest shooter in the history of the league. There’s Kevin Durant, the man who altered the course of the league by choosing to leave Oklahoma City for the Bay Area two summers ago. There’s Draymond Green, the defensive player of the year and the fiery leader of a team that feeds off his emotion. There’s Steve Kerr, the philosopher coach whose vision for how this team should play transformed it from a good team under Mark Jackson to a legendary one under his leadership.
But then there’s Thompson, arguably the second-best shooter in the NBA – trailing only Curry – who also doubles as a terrific defensive player, often taking on the best perimeter player on the other team. That is the exact skill set that every NBA team is looking for in a wing player these days, and no one does it better than Thompson.
Yet, because Thompson disdains interviews, and doesn’t seek out the spotlight, he tends to fly under the radar. But when the spotlight is brightest, and the pressure on this team is at its highest, there is no one who responds better.
“I think Klay doesn’t worry too much about repercussions,” Kerr said. “He doesn’t worry about judgment and results. I think he just loves to play.
“He’s so comfortable in his own skin. I just think he wants to go out there and hoop, and he doesn’t worry about much else. So the pressure doesn’t seem to bother him much. He just competes and plays.”
As the first half of Game 6 wore on, it looked like the Warriors wanted no part of it. They were missing easy shots. They were committing careless turnovers. They were leaving Houston open for one three-pointer after another. Trailing by 17 after one quarter and by 10 at halftime, it appeared that what was supposed to be a march to a second straight title might end in a loss to a Rockets team without Chris Paul on Golden State’s home court.
It felt, in a lot of ways, like the last time Golden State was in Game 6 of a Western Conference finals: two years ago, when the Warriors trailed the Oklahoma City Thunder 3-2 in that best-of-seven series, and needed a win in Oklahoma City to keep their season alive.
That day, the one player on the court who looked comfortable was Thompson, who had 41 points in the game – including 19 in the fourth quarter – to lead the Warriors to an improbable comeback victory.
His two three-pointers to start the second half of Game 6 helped spark an 11-0 run that allowed Golden State to take its first lead since the game’s opening minutes, and his 21 second half points helped the Warriors demolish the Rockets after the break, outscoring them 64-25 to send this series back to Houston for Game 7 Monday night.
“That felt good, to be honest,” Thompson said.
It felt great to the sellout crowd here, who watched the Warriors stumble and bumble their way through the first half and wondered if they were watching their team’s season come to a stunning end.
But, through it all, Thompson – who usually never changes his facial expression – was completely into the game. At one point in the second quarter, when the Warriors were beginning to make a run, he was telling his teammates on the court to keep things going.
Seemingly every time he made a big play, he screamed and pumped his fist in celebration – including when he buried a fast break three on the left wing that made it 89-77 Golden State with 9:39 remaining in the fourth quarter, a moment that signaled to everyone in the building that there was not going to be another fourth-quarter collapse for Golden State as there had been in Games 4 and 5.
“I just wanted to play with as much passion as I could tonight,” Thompson said. “Probably sounded more vocal than I usually am.
“When your back’s against the wall, if your shot’s not falling, you can always control your passion and how hard you play. Usually when I do that, it trickles over to other aspects of my game.”
That’s what happened in Game 6. Not only was Thompson terrific offensively, but he played a major role in slowing down James Harden in the second half. The presumptive league MVP had a strong game, holding up admirably while Paul watched from the sidelines with a hamstring injury he suffered in the final minute of Houston’s Game 5 win. Harden finished with 32 points, seven rebounds and nine assists in 40 minutes. But only 10 of those points, and two of those assists, came after halftime, a performance Thompson helped produce.
“I thought Klay was amazing tonight, not just for 35 points and the nine threes, but his defense,” Kerr said. The guy’s a machine.
“He’s just so fit physically. He seems to thrive in these situations. He was fantastic.”
Thompson thrives in these situations for precisely the same reason he is the forgotten man on this Warriors team: he worries only about winning.
For Thompson, the only thing that matters is those 48 minutes in front of him, and how he plays in them. That mindset Saturday night helped propel the Warriors to a victory, and kept their season alive for at least another 48 of them Monday night in Houston.
And no matter what happens in Game 7, one thing is for certain: Thompson’s mind-set will be just the same as it was in Game 6.
“That’s why he is who he is,” Stephen Curry said. “He’s kind of numb to the environment. He’s excited to play basketball, whether it’s Game 2 of the regular season, or Game 6 of the Western Conference finals.
“He’s confident in himself, and what he can do out on the floor on both ends, [and] he’s never seen a shot he doesn’t like. So when you have that kind of recipe mixed in, good things happen.”
That’s what happened Saturday night. And that’s why the Warriors are still alive.