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NBA

Klay Thompson: the free spirit in the Warriors’ championship dynasty

Having been sidelined for 941 days by two serious injuries, Thompson returned to play an important role in the Golden State Warriors’ fourth NBA title in eight seasons.

Update:
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 20: Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors celebrates with the NBA Championship Trophy during the Golden State Warriors Victory Parade on June 20, 2022 in San Francisco, California. The Golden State Warriors beat the Boston Celtics 4-2 to win the 2022 NBA Finals. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.   Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images/AFP(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
== FOR NEWSPAPERS, INTERNET, TELCOS & TELEVISION USE ONLY ==
Thearon W. HendersonAFP

In a time when everything becomes a meme, Klay Thompson acts so naturally, is by this stage - aged 32 - so comfortable with who he is and how he wants to live, that he’s unfazed by the threat of going viral, even when he does genuinely curious things, some of which are really quite comic. Whether he’s celebrating winning the championship by chanting “holy cannoli”; sharing his experiences with Rocco, his bulldog, on social media; or making known his love of boats and the ocean. After Game 4 of the NBA Finals, when the Golden State Warriors saved their skin at TD Garden and tied the series at 2-2, on the way to a 4-2 victory, Thompson posted an image of himself submerged in the waters of San Francisco Bay. “I just think the ocean has healing properties […],” he wrote. “Honestly, you just feel a little closer to God when you look up at the beautiful skies and you’re just in the ocean. I’m an Aquarius so I just have always loved the water my whole life. It really is my happy place, besides the hardwood.”

Thompson’s slight eccentricity, his increasingly singular personality, helped him to become the ideal definition of the workhorse star. To make far more sacrifices than anyone else for the good of the team. To place himself at the service of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and even Draymond Green. His contribution to the Warriors’ championship chemistry is essential. We’re talking, lest we forget, about a player able to score almost at will. A player who sank 14 three-pointers in one game - an all-time record. And a player who is the only one to have scored 37 points in a single quarter (against the Sacramento Kings in 2015), or to have scored 60 points in 29 minutes, having dribbled the ball just 11 times. There’s a reason why he’s the second best shooter in history and the eternal sidekick to the best, Stephen Curry. The legendary Splash Brothers.

It would be a huge understatement to say that this year’s championship ring, the fourth of Thompson’s career, was special for him. After all, he came up against the Boston Celtics, a team he detests. Born in Los Angeles, he grew up a Lakers supporter because his father, Mychal Thompson, was a two-time NBA winner with the franchise in the 1980s. A native of the Bahamas, Mychal was also the first non-American No. 1 NBA Draft pick, in 1978. But it’s not just about Klay’s hatred of the Celtics, of course. He spent more than two years on the sidelines, a 941-day nightmare lasting from 13 June 2019 to 11 January 2022. In Game 6 of the 2019 Finals against the Toronto Raptors, as he led the Warriors’ desperate attempt at a comeback, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. And later, as he sought to return from that injury, he snapped his Achilles tendon, too. Even he, an eternal optimist, acknowledges it was an ordeal that was hard to endure.

Curry, Green, Iguodala and Kerr were key to Klay’s recovery

Thompson also doesn’t hide the fact that he might not have had the right attitude, the resolve to come through it, without people around him such as Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, and, of course, team-mates like Curry, Green and Andre Iguodala. Together with that trio, Thompson is part of the first group of four players to have won four championships together (2015, 2017, 2018 and 2022) since Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper and Kurt Rambis did so with the Lakers in the 80s. Curry, Green and Thompson are the three players with the most wins in Finals series (21) since Magic, Kareem and Cooper (22). And the three players with the highest win percentage in the Playoffs: he and Green are at 70.3%; Curry, 69.4%.

On 11 January, after that horrible, 941-day absence, Thompson made his comeback, bringing a smile to the entire NBA community. Facing the Cleveland Cavaliers, he scored 17 points in almost 20 minutes. After that, he took the key step of showing that he could be an important player again. Thirty-two regular season games (an average of 20.4 points and 38.5% on threes) and a clean sweep of appearances in the Playoffs (19 points, 38.5%); he played more minutes than any other member of the Warriors in the postseason (792). In the Finals, there were times when he was back to his best defensively, and he managed five three-pointers in two separate games, with his finest performance coming in Game 4, when Golden State’s prospects hung by a thread. Beforehand, when the Warriors got off to a shaky start to the series, he had sought to bring calm by noting that he was “getting big 2015 vibes”. That year, the Warriors were 2-1 down going into Game 4 on the road against the Cavs. They won that clash, the two that followed, and the ring. The same path they took in 2022.

Curry and Thompson have 1,012 three-pointers between them in the Playoffs (561 and 451, respectively), and both have a success rate on threes that’s above 40%. The pairing with the next highest amount is the Lakers’ Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant… with 511. When the tough really got going, the connection between Curry, Thompson and Green got a unique, legendary team back on its feet. The trio, the true ‘big three’ of the Bay (despite Durant’s triumphant but brief stint with the Warriors), had, because of injuries, only played 11 minutes together in the regular season. But they know each others’ games inside out.

Andre Iguodala #9, Draymond Green #23, Klay Thompson #11 and Stephen Curry #30 after winning the 2022 NBA Finals.
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Andre Iguodala #9, Draymond Green #23, Klay Thompson #11 and Stephen Curry #30 after winning the 2022 NBA Finals.Adam GlanzmanAFP

“I’m going to go Michael Jordan”

After winning his fourth championship ring (he’s also a five-time All-Star and an Olympic gold medallist), Thompson spoke of his attachment to Warriors boss Kerr. Recalling a statement made by Michael Jordan about Phil Jackson, the NBA great’s coach at the Chicago Bulls, Thompson said: “I’m going to go Michael Jordan, I won’t play for another coach besides Steve.” There’s no doubt in his mind at this stage in his career, after one of the most horrific ordeals a professional player can experience, one that tested the advances in sports medicine right to the limit.

Thompson returned, played, and was important. And, once again, he won a championship. Next to the Bay, and with Curry and Green by his side, he’s right where he belongs. He’ll earn $40.6m next term and $43.2m in 2023/24, the last season the Warriors guaranteed him when they handed him a max contract right after his knee injury: five years, $190m. No conditions, no asterisks. That’s part of the Warriors culture. The culture of a unique team, the great dynasty of our time, and of a marvellous player who is among the very few about which you can say, without doubt, that there’s absolutely nobody who doesn’t have affection for him. Who doesn’t admire him, and feel pleased about the good things that happen to him.

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