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Jimmy Butler vs. Klay Thompson: The art of defense

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Versus Vol. V: Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson are two of the best two-way players in the NBA. How does their on-ball defense compare?

Minnesota Timberwolves v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson have quite a bit in common when you stack them up against each other.

They both:

  • Entered the NBA at the same time as part of the 2011 draft;
  • Were somewhat overlooked, but managed to outplay their draft position;
  • Are two of the best two-way players in the league today;
  • Played on the same Olympic team and won gold for the United States in 2016;
  • Made the All-NBA team in 2016-2017 season; and
  • Recently were named to the 2018 All-Star game as reserves in the Western Conference.

With the addition of Jimmy Butler in the offseason, the Timberwolves have returned to relevance and staked a claim as a threat in the West. As part of this “versus” comparison, I wanted to look into how Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson excel on defense and why they are two of the best defensive wing players in the game.

Although Jimmy Butler is unlikely to play in tonight’s prime-time showdown at Oracle, he gives the Wolves a chance to make noise in the playoffs with his ferocity on defense. The Timberwolves might just be a potential opponent for the Warriors this postseason.

Eyes in the passing lane

This was an earlier tilt in the season when the Warriors first faced the new-look Timberwolves. On this play, Butler traps Thompson and pins him between another Wolves’ player to force the ball out of his hand. Meanwhile, Butler has his eyes one play ahead, looking for the future passing lane between Draymond Green and Stephen Curry. He is able to lunge into the lane and cause a deflection that shoots off Curry’s foot and right into the path of Butler.

Seeing a play develop before it actually develops takes patience and split-second decisiveness. Had Butler not jumped in the passing lane and caused a deflection, Curry would have had a wide-open three as Klay sets a screen on Curry’s defender.

Feeding off a defensive assist

Whenever we think of assists, we think of the conventional assist off a made basket. Well, there can be other ways to assist teammates and here is great example. DeMar Derozan has Thompson one-on-one at the top of the arc ready to go full ISO. Jakop Poetl comes running to help set a screen. Instead, Green shadows Poetl and cuts off Derozan’s right side and ability to curl around.

Voila, defensive assist.

Thompson hugs Derozan’s hips and keeps arms’ length distance as he drives. Keeping a relatively close radius, Thompson can sense Derozan’s spin move and keep his feet close. This allows him to close out easily by utilizing his long wing span. The defensive assist is key here because it forces Derozan to one side of the floor to restrict his momentum.

Force the direction of the shot

This play was from a few years back when Butler was still a Bull. This comes off a key inbound where the Spurs need a three to tie and send the game into overtime. Once the inbound pass is received, Butler gradually directs Kawhi Leonard further and further away from the shot he originally wanted at the top of the arc.

Without getting caught in the air, Butler sticks to Leonard like a glove to restrain his movement and option to drive. Butler shades Leonard to the top left wing and forces an undesirable turnaround fallback three-pointer that becomes an air ball.

By getting his hands up, he avoids the foul and doesn’t have to leap while still being able to direct Leonard to where he wants.

Never giving up on the play

This play is from several years back when the Clippers’ and Warriors’ rivalry was still a thing. Regardless of its age, Thompson is so impressive here that it’s worth looking into.

He first starts off by guarding Chris Paul while Paul runs him into a screen through Blake Griffin. Thompson fights through the screen and works his way back to Paul at the top of the key. He cuts off his lane to the rim and Paul passive-aggressively feeds a bounce pass to Griffin. Thompson plays a zone defense here, trying to help David Lee out by teasing at a steal on Griffin several times while keeping his body momentum still towards Paul.

He forces the ball out of Griffin’s hands as he defers back to Paul where Thompson meets him back at the top and uses his superior length to swallow up Paul’s shot. Thompson never gave up on the play and was able to apply three defensive closeouts on the same possession. The play ends in a shot-clock violation with a one-man defensive stand.

Closing thoughts

Both players are extremely valuable to their respective teams for what they bring to the game defensively. Each player can guard the best guard or opposing wing and force difficult shots for the opponent. Their active hands and timely closeouts make them both superb options defensively.

Their defense leads to even better offense as they defend in the wing and force turnovers that lead to fast breaks.

BONUS: Thompson & Butler try to defend each other on the field

Here is a fun clip from the Olympics where Thompson and Butler try to defend each other while the other player receives the football. This was taken sometime during the lead-up to the 2016 Olympics.