Warriors' Klay Thompson remains a wild card in NBA Finals

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Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) celebrates with forward Draymond Green (23) during the second half of Game 1 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics in San Francisco, Sunday, June 5, 2022. (AP Photo/John Hefti)
Warriors guard Klay Thompson celebrates with forward Draymond Green after making a three-point shot against the Celtics in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. (John Hefti / Associated Press)

There was a moment in Game 2 of the NBA Finals when Klay Thompson sprinted up the court from in front of the Boston bench to the Warriors bench, swooping under the rim before precisely curling around a screen for an in-rhythm, three-point shot.

The ball splashed through the net — one of the prettiest jump shooters in NBA history doing what he does in front of an appreciative home crowd.

If you closed your eyes just then, you would’ve felt like you were at Oracle Arena in Oakland in 2019.

But this was in San Francisco, inside the enormous Chase Center. And so much has happened to Thompson between his last trip to the Finals and this one.

Through two games he’s made just 10 of 33 shots. He’s been attacked on defense. And yet he still can "take it to another level," as teammate Stephen Curry says, in his first season back after devastating knee and Achilles injuries.

As the series moves to Boston tied 1-1, both teams owning double-digit victories, Thompson’s role is maybe the most intriguing storyline.

“Thanks for reminding me of my delightful shooting percentage,” he told reporters in Boston on Tuesday. “But, I mean, when I watched the film, I probably seemed a little rushed. I wasn't underneath my shot. This is nothing I'm immune to. I've been through shooting slumps before. The best part is, it's how you respond. Come Game 3, I'll probably not do much differently ... just play with great pace and pump great shots. When I tend to do that, I tend to have a big night.

“Most importantly, feels good going four for 19 and winning by 20. I'd rather do that than 13 for 19 and lose by 10. Been there, and that's never fun.”

Even as he lost two seasons to injuries, it was never a question whether or not Thompson still was having fun. He took up boating, streaming video of himself off San Francisco’s shores. He hung with his dog. And, for a shooter like him, the comeback almost felt assured. He's one of only three players to average at least seven three-point attempts per game while shooting better than 40%.

Still, Thompson is only 50 games back from a period when he stopped snapping the twine with his shots and started tearing critical ligaments and tendons. In these Finals, he’s looked somewhere between the player he used to be and the one he’s learning to be now.

“He's just pressing a little bit,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “He just wants so badly to do well that he's taking some bad ones. I'm not particularly concerned about it because this isn't the first time it's happened. Klay has a way of responding to mini slumps.”

In Game 1, it was jarring to watch Boston’s Jaylen Brown attack Thompson off the dribble. Once such a tough defender that the Warriors would put him on Chris Paul, he wasn’t able to stay in front of Brown while the Boston wing repeatedly penetrated the paint, leaving Thompson on his hip.

One of the Warriors' key adjustments in Game 2 was moving Thompson onto Al Horford, allowing him to play more in help defense and keeping him off the lead attacker.

The shooting, though, might be a simpler fix.

For Thompson, he’s just gone to the internet where there are plenty of clips confirming that he heats up as fast as anyone ever to touch a basketball.

“That's the beauty of playing in today's age. You can go on YouTube and look up all your great moments,” Thompson said Tuesday. “For me, it's as recently as Round [1] against the Nuggets, or last round against the Mavs. I hadn't had a multiple three-point game throughout the series, but I stuck to the process, eventually I blew the lid off.

“For me it's about keeping that same mindset of ‘shooters shoot.’ I'd rather go down swinging than being gun shy.”

In the conference finals against Dallas, Thompson made just one three-pointer in each of the first two games. His shooting improved and he made eight threes in the close-out game.

Teammates know Thompson still is a one-of-kind offensive weapon in this series, the kind of player who can roll off screens and catch-and-shoot his way to a game-changing shift when he hits a handful of jumpers. That was true in Oracle Arena during the Warriors’ dynasty and it’s true now as they try to recapture NBA glory.

“History with him has shown there's no predictor," Curry told reporters Tuesday. "He can just take it to another level. Regular season, playoffs, he's always just found a way to get himself going. Especially in the playoffs, just to make an impact that's loud. Usually it's really loud. His demeanor never really changes ... if you saw him now, you'd think he's averaging 50 in this series. He's got just a very confident look about him.

“That's the best thing about him.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.