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NBA

Imagine Adding Klay Thompson To This!

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

There came a moment very early in the fourth quarter of Golden State’s victory Monday night over the visiting Hawks when Atlanta’s Cam Reddish all but climbed inside the jersey of Stephen Curry, like a humongous joey inside a doe’s marsupium, in order to stay as close as physically possible to his temporary defensive assignment. There were 11 seconds left on the shot clock—plenty of time to run a quick action to create space for someone in the Warriors offense—and Curry and the ball were crammed up against the sideline on the right wing, with Atlanta’s defense and the entire arena’s attention tilted their way. The situation seemed to call for a pass and a reset, but when Curry is feeling the jumper, as he was Monday night, anything at all is possible.

Reddish is a tough, nimble, uber-confident on-ball defender, across all kinds of matchups. The Hawks might not want him chasing the most dangerous off-ball player maybe ever around pin-down screens for a full possession, but that rare combination of length, agility, and tenacity makes him Atlanta’s defender of choice, even in nominal mismatches, for the final third or so of the shot clock, and it’s a job Reddish seems in general to relish. Not here: Monday night, pressed up against Curry on the wing and with all the action frozen around them, Reddish looked like someone desperate to corral a litter of puppies near a busy highway using nothing but panicking hands. Math says there’s an amount of physical space a 6-foot-8 defender with a 7-foot-1 wingspan can give a 6-foot-2 shooter 26 feet from the basket and still deny a shot, but Curry’s warping effects on an NBA floor seem at times to flout the laws of physics. Reddish’s solution was to mirror Curry’s movements from within smooching range; because that is impossible for anything that is not literally Steph’s shadow, Reddish was understandably a little bit twitchy.

And he did great! Curry ducked his right shoulder to protect the ball in a three-point stance, and Reddish immediately swooped into the available space, taking up all of Curry’s view of the floor. Curry swung the ball through to his right hip; Reddish kept his hands clear and pivoted to push Curry toward the baseline, toward help. Curry shoulder-faked back to the left; Reddish, respecting Curry’s quickness advantage and the dangers of letting him get to the middle of the floor, bent his right knee ever so slightly, for the merest fraction of a second, for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it chance at sliding over and cutting off that escape route. And that was it! That was as much as Steph needed. An escape dribble to the right, a big step-back to behind the arc, and bombs away.

The Hawks led by 15 points in the first half Monday, but every time it seemed like they might break things all the way open, Curry would conjure up an answer. With Atlanta up eight in the first quarter, he floated a gorgeous hit-ahead pass in transition for an assist; with Atlanta up 13 late in the second he darted into space in the corner and splashed a clutch three-pointer. A minute later, with Atlanta up 12, Steph split a trap at the top of the key, drew a third defender, and dumped a no-look pass to a cutting Draymond Green for a layup. Another assist brought Atlanta’s lead to single digits; then, with nine seconds left in the half and the margin still at seven, Steph isolated against poor Kevin Huerter at the top of the key and bombed home a 31-foot step-back. Then he scored 18 points on seven shots in the third quarter, finished with 50 points on the night, and led the Warriors to a comfortable win.

I think I feel compelled to talk about basically every single movement Curry made in this game because it was the first time in a long time that I’ve felt totally convinced that Steph and the Warriors are capable of regaining the form that defined their transcendent dynasty era. The Hawks are a confident and resilient bunch, and they had it going throughout the first half Monday night, and Curry just systematically yanked the fight right out of them, so that by the midpoint of the fourth quarter all that was left was a rattled, demoralized mess. It was like old times! Ambitious visitors would hype themselves up for a trip to the Bay Area, and the generous Warriors would gift them 18 minutes of fun and then pull a lightning-quick 23–0 run, and the crowd would go insane, and suddenly all of Golden State’s starters were in warmups and goofing off on the bench with most of the final frame still left to play.

The Warriors now have the NBA’s best record (9–1), the best point differential (a ridiculous 13.7), and the best defensive rating (98.2). Their only loss was a one-possession overtime thriller against the Grizzlies and an absolutely unconscious Ja Morant. On paper the Dubs appear to be the NBA’s best team, which is interesting because their roster, at least on paper, doesn’t look too much more like a world-beater than what they rolled out last season, when they finished ninth in the Western Conference and failed to advance out of the play-in round. 38-year-old Andre Iguodala is back; Gary Payton II is a fun jolt of chaotic energy; Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica are nice veteran additions. But no individual from that group rises above marginal status; Jordan Poole and Damion Lee are still fourth and fifth on the team in minutes. Porter is competing for a rotation gig with Juan Toscano-Anderson; Bjelica is primarily Kevon Looney’s backup. Iguodala is important, but it’s a four-points-per-game-on-49-percent-true-shooting kind of importance.

Point is, the Warriors are making this magic with some regular old guys in some extremely prominent roles. In related news, Klay Thompson, who’s been out for two whole seasons following history’s worst-timed ACL injury, is now playing 3-on-3 in practice, as he ramps up for a return to action. Shams Charania reported back in mid-October that a return to full practice could come within a month, which if his reporting is correct would mean any day now. It’s unclear how much full practicing the Warriors will want from Klay before they clear him for game action, but Ramona Shelburne reported at the end of summer that the Warriors expected him back by Christmas. Probably they do not need Thompson to practice for more than a full month before they get him into their rotation, but after two years it would make sense to be cautious. Either way, his return is drawing near.

The line on the Warriors, immediately after Thompson’s injury and the departure for Brooklyn of Kevin Durant, was they had a reasonable shot at title contention if and when Klay regained most of his former greatness. Now they appear to be one of the very best teams in basketball with Jordan damn Poole second on the squad in usage. Imagine adding any conceivable game-ready version of Klay Thompson to this! Bringing him back into the fold will, I’m sure, require some patience and fine-tuning, but the team’s already good vibes should immediately shoot through the roof. With a core that has always drawn so much juice from raw vibes, that makes for a thrilling, terrifying possible future. And that’s just any ambulatory version of Thompson. Imagine if he gets back to doing Klay Thompson shit! The mind reels.

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