SAN FRANCISCO – With a little over three minutes to go in the Western Conference Finals, Klay Thompson had a pull-up jumper in the lane rejected by Spencer Dinwiddie. No worries — Thompson finagled the rebound and immediately found himself at the elbow, where he rose up for another two. No dice — he air balled it. Kevon Looney scooped up the rebound — one of his 18 — as Thompson re-positioned himself to the right corner. The ball found its way back to Klay, and this time he sank a three, his eighth of the game. And the Mavs’ comeback that had the faintest glimmer of hope had finally been extinguished. The Warriors took a 15-point lead and punched their ticket back to the NBA Finals.
That sequence from Klay, and perhaps his whole season, is a microcosm of this Golden State team. A little battered and worse for the wear. Not quite as straight shooting. Fallible. But when the stakes are the highest, a team that clearly still has championship-level talent.
The Warriors are headed back to the Finals for the sixth time in eight years, a feat last accomplished by Jordan’s Bulls. This is not the scariest version of this team we’ve ever seen. This isn’t a 73-win juggernaut. This isn’t the Kevin Durant-ruined-the-NBA-level destroyer. It’s an older, creakier group. Yet it’s still one that can go toe-to-toe with whichever upstart dares to challenge them. In this playoff run alone the Dubs have left a two-time MVP in Nikola Jokić and two rising stars in Ja Morant and Luka Dončić in their wake. It’s not just an old guy that’s still got it. It’s an old team.
On Thursday, Thompson was the poetic hero. His journey back to the Finals has mirrored what the Warriors have gone through in their three years since last making the championship round. Unfortunate injuries. A difficult climb back as the rest of the conference reloads. Questions about what they’re still capable of in a post-Durant world. As Thompson said himself, it’s a group that doesn’t have as much leeway as it had in the past, forced to be more meticulous because of their current circumstances.
“It’s so hard to get to the Finals,” Steve Kerr said after the game. “An NBA season is such a marathon, to get through the 82nd, to get through three rounds of the playoffs, beating the best teams in the league to get there, it’s frankly exhausting. It’s stressful, emotional, physically tiring, all of that stuff.
“For our team, our guys, especially the core group, Dray and Steph, Klay, Loon [Kevon Looney]Andre [Iguodala], to be part of that six times in eight years, I don’t even know what to say. It just takes an enormous amount of skill and determination and work. ”
Thompson embodied that work and determination in many ways. He struggled for much of the West Finals. In Games 1–4, he made seven threes combined. In Game 5, he poured in eight, connecting on a higher percentage of threes (50%) than twos (44.4%). He finished with 32 points, a game high, adding another chapter to his tome of closeout heroics.
The road back to the Finals is particularly sweet for Thompson. He could only watch from afar the previous two seasons as the Warriors fell behind the rest of the league. A torn ACL and torn Achilles in back-to-back summers laid out an arduous path back to the court. Nights like Thursday are why players put in countless hours in the gym while no one is watching. So when the lights are the brightest, they can still deliver like they were once famous for.
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“I dreamed about this everyday,” Thompson said after the game, adding, “My thoughts go to the surgery table, my appreciation for moving my body again. I thought about those days I couldn’t run or jump. I thought about how lucky we are to do what we do. It’s inspiring for myself to keep going. ”
“I’m happy for everybody, and I could go down the list. Each player has a unique individual background and story. I’m happy for all of them, ”Kerr said after the game. “But, it’s hard not to be most excited for Klay given what he’s been through.”
“Even though he was out, it didn’t change who he was,” said Jordan Poole, who Klay told in the third game of his rookie season he would play in the Finals one day. “He came back stronger mentally. When he came back, he came back a vet. I’m extremely happy for him, his perseverance, his mental toughness, it’s insane. ”
“We saw the dark days, we saw the process,” Draymond Green said. “To see him have that moment, it’s special… It’s coming from the struggle, and it’s a beautiful thing.”
A year ago at this time, Thompson had only just running and jogging. His rehab wasn’t always fun. He grew sick of doing a thousand calf raises a day. The training staff kept imploring him to endure, because the work would pay off one day. It was those difficult times that made Thursday especially poignant.
Said Thompson, “The low moments make the high ones so much sweeter, that’s what I’ve learned.”
The sweetest moment is still up for grabs, of course. Golden State is four wins away from its ultimate goal. As for what a title would mean to this group? Green offered a threat more than an answer.
“Don’t let us win a f — ing championship.”
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