Warriors megamind Draymond Green tweaked his calf while warming up for Sunday’s game against the Cavaliers. In almost every other conceivable circumstance, he would have simply been benched for the game, but because this game marked Klay Thompson’s his first appearance in 31 months after suffering consecutive tears to two of his body’s most important tendons, Green insisted on starting. He wanted to be a part of the ritual of Thompson’s return, and so he was—both coaches agreed to have Green give a foul on the first possession of the game so he could go rest his ailing leg while still technically taking part in Thompson’s first game action since June 2019. The moment was that big. The whole team wore Thompson jerseys to the game, the man himself said returning for a January game against the Cavs was “pretty freaking close” to literally winning a championship, and Steph Curry even changed his stupid crypto avatar to mark the occasion.
Thompson hadn’t seen an NBA court in 941 days, which is a gap almost one year longer than Michael Jordan’s baseball hiatus. Since he tore his ACL in the last game of the 2019 Finals, then ruptured his Achilles tendon one month before the start of the 2020-21 season, the Warriors have moved from Oakland to San Francisco, lost Kevin Durant, added three lottery picks, and re-established themselves as one of the best teams in the NBA. Thompson was 29 when he hit those two free throws in Game 6 after tearing his ACL, and he’ll turn 32 next month. He’s spent the intervening period undergoing a Sisyphean rehab effort, becoming a boat guy, and fuming about being left off the NBA’s 75th anniversary team. But while Klay Thompson’s status as a legendary symbol of those incandescent Warriors teams was cemented years ago, his utility as an on-the-court player for a 2022 title contender is in the balance.
In an emotional press conference after the Warriors win, Thompson expressed gratitude to once again be competing, on the court, as a basketball player, so we might as well consider him on these terms. Injuries and all, Thompson absolutely kicked ass last night. He dropped 17 points in 20 minutes and helped the Warriors hold the Cavs to their lowest point total of the season. On his team’s first play of the game, Thompson received the ball on a curl screen and immediately charged into the teeth of the defense for a nice finish. Though the play seemed drawn up for Thompson to get a bucket, that wasn’t exactly Kerr’s idea. “I drew the first up play … for him to catch it and move it on,” Kerr said. “I should have known better.”
Thompson’s offensive steadiness is a welcome sign for a Warriors team in need of some scoring juice. They still have the best defense in the NBA, but the lack of non-Curry creators has started to create some strain on the offensive end, as the team has scored in triple digits just twice in six post-Christmas games. Thompson looked comfortable hitting tough shots against tight defense, and he canned three threes on the night. At his best, Thompson’s pure shotmaking ability can negate even near-perfect defense, and he made a few tough jumpers on the run against some very good Cleveland contests. But Thompson was always expected to hit jumpers. The real test was his physicality. Could he stand up as an all-league defender, or show off his bounce in traffic? Well, yes.
Caveats apply, and Thompson will doubtless take some time to adjust to every-night NBA game speed, but that dunk is not to be shrugged off. The Warriors took their time bringing Thompson back, and while there will be some rust to scrape off, punishing a good big man perimeter defender before smoking two helpers at the rim shows that he’s able to do Klay Thompson-style things again. More to the point, it doesn’t feel quite right to boil the worthiness of Thompson’s return down to whether or not he can make the 2022 Warriors into title favorites. Thompson is a thrill to watch every time out, and after missing all those years, it’s enough to be able to appreciate him as a special player who will rip a huge three in anyone’s face at any time. Thompson at his best is brazenly and brilliantly fearless, and at a time when a lot of NBA basketball is high-key bullshit, it rules to simply have him back in the league doing cool stuff.