Major Warriors development in first round: Klay Thompson has looked near his vintage self

How’s this for a vintage Klay Thompson stat: In Game 4, he only needed four dribbles to reach 32 points. Thompson hit seven 3s. Six of them were catch-and-shoot, and the seventh was a one-dribble pull-up. He needed single dribbles for a pump-and-go layup, a pull-up 17-footer and an attack of an out-of-position austin rivers that drew two free throws.

Thompson never dribbled more than once to score. Ball in his hands from him. Ball out of his hands from him. Lethal accuracy. Zero wasted motion. Grab and fire or grab and go with a straight-line rapid plan.

That’s when Thompson has always been at his most dangerous. He isn’t an efficient pick-and-roll operator or creative isolation scorer. His first step is not quick. But his trigger from him might be the most abrupt yet compact among elite shooters in NBA history. In this clip, I have touched the ball for less than a half-second but still fired up a perfect form 3 over a reasonable contest.

That came in the third quarter of Game 4 in Denver. Thompson was limited to 31 minutes because of foul trouble. Had he been on the court seven minutes longer, the sweep might’ve been complete. He was that scorching. Thompson scored more than a point per minute. I have hit seven 3s. the Warriors outscored the Nuggets by nine when he was on the floor.

But this wasn’t a sudden outlier, one of those sporadic dynasty flashbacks to the pre-injury Thompson. It is who has been — again — for a consistent stretch. Thompson’s 21 made 3s are the most of anybody in these playoffs.

Desmond Bane is closest with 19 makes. Anthony Edwards is next at 16. CJ McCollum is fourth at 15. None of those three have made half of their attempts; Thompson has. He’s 21-of-42. He fifty percent from deep, 57 percent on his limited 2s, equaling an outrageous true shooting percentage of 67.2.

But extend it back further. Thompson scored 36, 33 and 41 points in his final three regular-season games, all needed wins to help clinch the third seed and this appealing matchup with Denver. Thompson made 21 total 3s in those three games on 41 attempts. So let’s cobble all that together and average it out.

Klay Thompson’s past seven games

29.7 points
50.6 percent from deep (42 of 83)
52.9 percent overall (80 of 151)

There’s no reason to add his free throw total into the mix. Thompson has only been to the line eight times in those seven games. Which is healthy. That’s vintage Thompson. He’s never been a volume free-throw shooter because he doesn’t bait fouls or attack the rim. He rains over the top in a robotic search for swishes, not whistles.

Steve Kerr has credited Thompson’s late-season surge to improved shot selection and a better physical state after shaking off 941 days of inactive rust. He does look bouncier, his legs fresher. Thompson is curling around screens harder and getting more lift on his jumper. That was the expectation when he returned in January — he’d look substantially better in April and May.


Klay Thompson. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

But jordan poole‘s recent rise has played a consequential part in Thompson’s enhanced rhythm. It has bumped him into his proper place in an offensive pecking order. Thompson has admitted he was “overeager” to shoot when he first returned, and it was clear he was shouldering an unwise playmaking burden when Steph Curry was off the floor or injured.

Several stats tell the tale. Here are a few, per NBA.com’s tracking data, differentiating how he has operated as a side piece next to Poole and Curry in these playoffs compared to the regular season.

  • Thompson attempted 5.9 shots per game after two or more dribbles in his 32 regular-season games. He’s reduced that to 1.8 in four playoff games.
  • More than 70 percent of Thompson’s playoff shot attempts have come within two seconds of touching the basketball. That was down at 63.2 percent in the regular season.
  • Nearly 25 percent of Thompson’s makes in the regular season were unassisted. In the playoffs, only 13 percent of his makes have been unassisted.
  • If you cut up Thompson’s offensive pie, only 36.8 percent of his regular-season attempts were catch-and-shoot 3s, his most dangerous tool. In the playoffs, he’s increased that to 49.8 percent. He’s taking 8.5 of them per game against Denver.

Here is a visual representation of how the dichotomy of these numbers played out. This clip is from early March. It is the opening possession of a game in Dallas, when Thompson was in a funk. He went 6-of-17 shooting on this night and criticized himself postgame for a pair of airballs.

Notice the lineup on the floor. Draymond Green is still out. Curry is next to Thompson in the backcourt. But Poole is coming off the bench. Gary Payton II is starting. Thompson is controlling more possessions per game than Poole. Off the opening tap, Thompson runs a pick-and-roll. It leads to seven meandering dribbles and a 20-foot midrange fade from the deep right corner. This is not Thompson at his best.

Fast forward seven weeks. Poole is not only starting but controlling a much bigger portion of the offense. Curry and Green are both healthy. The three-guard lineup is torching teams — outscoring opponents by 112 minutes in their 173 minutes together.

But even when it’s only Poole next to Thompson, it’s mostly Green or Poole probing and passing while Thompson roams as the thirsty catch-and-shoot terminator. Green has 31 assists in this series. Poole has 23. Thompson only has four. He had zero on Sunday.

That’s how it should be. His role makes sense again. It plays out perfectly on this Game 4 fastbreak. Kevin Looney rebounds and shovels it to Green. Green has his choice to hit ahead to either Thompson or Poole. He chooses Poole. Poole runs it into the frontcourt, draws the eyes of the defense and then fires an absolute laser beam across court right into Thompson’s shooting pocket. Denver’s defenders don’t have enough time to contest it.

There is another side of the floor, though. Part of Thompson’s grand appeal last decade was his sturdy defense of him. Kerr would regularly assign him the opponent’s best perimeter scorer, and he’d hound him for 37 minutes better than 95 percent of his NBA counterparts.

in an extended interview back in late February, I asked Thompson to assess his defense, post-ACL and Achilles.

“I think I’m at, like, 80 percent,” Thompson said. “Still have a long way to go. But 80 percent me is still great on that side of the ball. I can use my strength to body guys, my size to body smaller guards, be solid against big men. I can still switch. But as far as my lateral quickness, it’s about — from where it was — it’s about 80, 85 percent from where it was. I know it’ll take time to come back.”

Two months later, that lateral quickness still isn’t what it used to be. It’s unrealistic to believe it ever will be. Thompson has not only endured two grueling leg rehabs, but he’s 32 now. His quickness from him would’ve naturally waned even without the injuries. The league’s quicker guards get by him easier than in 2019 or before. here is Bones-Hyland zipping past him in a Game 4 isolation setting.

So, no, don’t expect him to be the primary defender on Ja Morant if the Warriors meet Memphis in the next round. That’ll be Andrew Wiggins and Payton and maybe some occasional Thompson with help waiting behind him.

But that decreased lateral torque doesn’t strip away some of Thompson’s best defensive qualities. He’s a strong 6-foot-7, huge for the shooting guard position, profiling as more of a small forward in 2022. That’s helpful for the Warriors, who intend to upsize Thompson into that small forward spot the more they play Curry and Poole next to him.

There are plenty of remaining scorers in these playoffs who aren’t speedy guards. Bane is cooking for Memphis. He’d presumably be Thompson’s primary assignment if it’s the grizzlies in the second round. Here is what the Warriors hope that type of matchup would look like.

Through four playoff games, so many of the Warriors’ prior unknowns have tilted positively in their direction. How would the returning Curry look? Great. How would Poole handle this stage? Better than imagined. Could Green hold up physically in more center minutes? So far, yes.

Thompson’s series has flown a bit under the radar, but it’s equally important as any. His jumper is scorching, his shot diet has been excellent, and his defense has held up in lineups that are better suited to his current stronger, slower state. He generally looks somewhere near the prime Thompson who became a playoff legend.

“The biggest thing for me is he’s competed like the Klay Thompson we know,” Green said. “That’s who everybody loves. That’s the guy who goes into Game 6 and carries us. It’s that kind of demeanor. You’re getting consistent shot-making and he’s playing defense and battling. You’re starting to see him move (well) again.”

(Top photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

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