OAKLAND, Calif. — When Klay Thompson gets mentioned, it’s usually under the cover of association: He’s the other half of the Splash Brothers, one-fifth of the Hamptons Five, and the fourth member of Golden State’s oft-cited “four future Hall of Famers.”
Such is life at the epicenter of the NBA’s monolith: The Warriors have bigger stars, bigger personalities, bigger storylines. Unlike his teammates, Thompson’s individual play hasn’t been recognized with an MVP, a Finals MVP or a Defensive Player of the Year award. His low-key, all-business personality has been Teflon to cliché caricatures: Stephen Curry is the golden boy, Kevin Durant is the ultimate luxury, and Draymond Green is the heart and soul. Thompson, meanwhile, is usually described by teammates and his coaches in circular fashion: “Klay is just Klay.”
As Golden State has played unevenly in these Western Conference finals, media members and fans have seized on a possible custody dispute between Curry and Durant for control of the offense. Even in these heated philosophical debates, Thompson is treated like a bystander. This is how it’s been throughout Golden State’s four-year run. Curry has been pitted against Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and Kyrie Irving. Durant has gone head-to-head with James and battled the traditionalist view of bandwagoning. Green has been in occasional spats with coach Steve Kerr and waged a never-ending war with the referees. Thompson, though, has largely ducked the spotlight in good times, avoided the bullseye in bad, and steered clear of drama altogether.
But when Thompson does move front and center, he arrives with an all-consuming fury, like a natural disaster on hardwood: One moment the game is right side up, the next it’s upside down, and then it’s all over.
One moment, it’s a random December contest against the Kings, the next Thompson has 60 points in three quarters while barely dribbling the ball. One moment, Golden State’s 73-win 2016 season is on the brink, the next Thompson has nailed 11 three-pointers on the road, forcing dozens of Thunder fans to turn their backs to the court in horror. One moment, the 2018 Warriors are at serious risk of becoming the NBA’s biggest underachievers of the 21st century, the next Thompson saves his Superteam’s season yet again.
The Warriors defeated the Rockets 115-86 in Game 6 at Oracle Arena on Saturday night, forcing a Game 7 in Houston on Monday. For two quarters, Golden State seemed destined for an early exit and a solid month of mocking for its unfulfilled dynasty. The Rockets, even without an injured Chris Paul, had built a 17-point first-half lead, bottling up the Warriors’ offense and draining open three after open three.
In a repeat of his glorious 41-point outburst in Game 6 of the West finals at Oklahoma City two years ago, Thompson flipped the game, and the series, by blitzing out of halftime with a pair of three-pointers in the first 95 seconds. Then he kept hitting, and hitting, and hitting, like a pool shark running through a full rack. Left angle. Right corner. Right corner. Right corner. Left angle. Top of the key. Right angle.
The four-time All-Star shooting guard scored 21 of his game-high 35 points in the second half, with seven of his nine three-pointers coming after halftime. He barely celebrated as he went, other than to hold his release, to bounce excitedly for more as Houston inbounded the ball, and to let loose one good fist pump as the crowd cheered him on. Soon enough, Curry caught fire by proxy, finishing with 29 points and five threes of his own.
“I don’t know if I was born for it,” Thompson said afterwards, when asked about his steadiness given the immense stakes. “But I definitely worked my butt off to get to this point.”
He stopped for a moment to think about that answer, and then seemed to conclude that the room of reporters expected something juicier and more definitive. “I guess you could say I was born for it,” he said, trying again, stalling again. “I don’t know. I guess everything happens for a reason. That felt good, to be honest.”
Unwittingly, Thompson had provided a perfect self-summary. Never hesitant to shoot in the moment; Always hesitant to pound his chest after the fact.
“Klay doesn’t worry too much about repercussions,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, raving about Thompson’s ability to revive Golden State’s offense while also playing dogged defense on James Harden. “He doesn’t worry about judgment and results. He wants to go out there and hoop. The pressure doesn’t seem to bother him much. The guy is a machine. He’s just so fit physically. He seems to thrive in these situations.”
When Thompson decimated the Thunder two years ago, the Warriors rode the resulting momentum wave to a Game 7 victory at home. “Please don’t go there,” Durant said on Saturday, when asked for his memories of being on the wrong end of that night in OKC. “Next question.”
Of course, the 2016 Warriors went on to blow a 3-1 lead against the Cavaliers in the Finals, a defeat that spoiled their record-setting season and turned the most important performance of Thompson’s career into a footnote. Curry, like Durant, understandably wanted no part of the trip down memory lane. “I think we both blocked that whole year out of our memory,” he quipped.
Thompson’s handling of that Finals defeat must not be lost to history: He never griped, he went to the Hamptons to recruit Durant, he sacrificed a portion of his slim share of the limelight, he played committed defense throughout an extended slump in the 2017 playoffs, and he claimed his second title with little individual fanfare. There were plenty of opportunities to make a fuss, but Thompson never came close to batting an eyelash.
For all the game-changing carnage he can bring, there’s an unmistakable peace to Thompson. “He’s so comfortable in his own skin,” Kerr said, knowing that so many NBA players—superstars and scrubs alike—are not. In a rare moment of public reflection on Saturday, Thompson recalled the pitfalls that plague perfectionists: anger, regret, self-loathing.
“I was not always like this,” he said, charting his winding path to eerie calm. “I used to be so hard on myself, especially early in my career. I remember one time losing a game against the Nuggets and leaving the arena in my uniform because I was so mad. I learned, as I got older, that if you play with passion, you play hard, and you give everything you have in those 48 minutes, you can live with the result.”
For the second time in three seasons, the Warriors have cheated death because of Thompson. Just like in 2016, however, their new life guarantees nothing. Houston is down but not out, and the NBA Finals always carries challenges of its own.
Thompson would never say this, and it’s not said nearly enough: The rest of the Warriors are indebted to their unheralded star, for his thankless work, his egoless approach, and his peerless, timely shooting. The next two weeks would be the perfect time for them to pay up.