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The Golden Breakdown: The many ways of Klay Thompson’s offensive breakthrough

Through a plethora of mid-range jumpers, three-point buckets, and vintage off-ball movement, the Klay Thompson that Warriors fans all know and love finally showed up.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

On the second game of a home-and-home against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Warriors were able to recover from the eccentricities and blunders of the first game to defeat the Blazers on their home court. Despite a monster game from Damian Lillard — who put up 40 points against the team he grew up cheering for — the Warriors were able to survive through sheer point production from Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant. The trio combined for 82 points, with the bulk of the scoring coming from Thompson.

Meanwhile, the Warriors carried over their excellent defensive play from the previous game into the hostile environment of the Moda Center. While the Warriors were successful in forcing the Blazers to struggle on the offensive end during their initial meeting this week — forcing them to shoot 36.2 percent from the field and 32.5 percent from the three — the Warriors themselves had an abysmal night on the offensive end by shooting 42.5 percent from the field, 29.5 percent from the three, and uncharacteristically missing 9 free throws out of 15 attempted.

While the defensive effort remained the same, the offense finally showed up on Saturday night. The Warriors shot 50.0 percent from the field, made 12 of their 25 three point attempts (48.0 percent), and performed relatively better at the charity stripe by going 23-of-28.

While Curry is the engine of the Warriors’ offense, and Durant is the ultimate insurance policy that the Warriors can rely on to get them out of offensive ruts, Thompson is often the spark plug that provides another dimension of superiority to their offense. Thompson is considered the third option, but he is the ultimate third option in a league where most teams’ third options are role players or journeymen. When he is on his A-game, the Warriors are nigh impossible to overcome.

The season has been a far cry from being an A-game for Thompson, who is averaging 20.9 points on a shooting split of .436/.333/.804. Historically, he has been prone to slumps, but they usually last for only a few games, or a few weeks at most. His current slump is proving to be no mere cold or cough, but an affliction that is plaguing him and the team as a whole.

Thompson shot 6-of-19 against the Blazers on Thursday night, with a 2-of-9 line from three-point range. In a game that was neck-and-neck all throughout, a better shooting performance from Thompson would’ve enabled the Warriors to come out on top comfortably against the Blazers.

As all shooters do when they struggle, they keep on shooting; despite Thompson’s struggles at the one thing that he does best, his mental toughness and “next game up” approach is what keeps him afloat. That mentality served him well on Saturday night — 32 points on 12-of-21 shooting (57.1 percent), and 4-of-5 from three (80.0 percent).

Thompson didn’t do anything particularly different in his approach; for most of the night, it was simply a matter of knocking down a combination of wide-open shots and tough shots that were brief glimpses of the unconsciousness that Thompson undergoes when he is on one of his huge scoring binges.

One of the more jarring observations that people have made during Thompson’s struggles has been his insistence on shooting mid-range shots. Last season, Thompson was averaging 5.5 mid-range jumpers per game, while knocking down 49.1 percent of them. This season, that average has considerably increased to 7.3 mid-range jumpers per game on a connect rate of 46.6 percent. For some reason, the other half of the Splash Brothers is insistent on being the doppelganger of DeMar DeRozan.

While the quantity of mid-range shots may be a problem, it’s the quality of those shots that are often being questioned. Thompson is quite fond of going up for hotly-contested mid-range jumpers, often with a hand on his face, and clanking them. Tunnel vision has often been a problem for him, missing open teammates and jacking shots up early in the shot clock.

Other times, Thompson gets a favorable match-up on the post against a smaller defender, in the same manner that Durant does when he posts up against players that are out of his line of sight. While these shots still fade in comparison to threes and points generated through cuts and dives, they are much better than the dribble-in pull-ups that Thompson has been quite fond of as of late.

In this instance, Thompson is ahead of everyone else and manages to rise up for a fadeaway mid-range jumper as a result of shooting over the smaller CJ McCollum.

This mid-range jumper from Thompson over the smaller Damian Lillard is what most fans are used to seeing from him in days past. He is able to elevate over the overmatched Lillard; his form looks good, he gets perfectly balanced on the way up, and his shot isn’t flat.

Having established a shooting rhythm from the mid-range, Thompson is able to take his defender off of a single dribble into a mid-range pull-up. Once again, his shot looks good, despite slightly fading to the side.

Once again, Thompson manages to get himself a favorable matchup down low. He receives the ball on the left block and uses his size advantage to back down Seth Curry. Once he gets into a closer position , he pulls up for the fadeaway paint jumper that proves to be automatic for him.

In addition to Thompson’s markedly improved mid-range game, his bread-and-butter three-point shot also made a triumphant return. Thompson buries a no-dribble staredown three in front of Jusuf Nurkic, who hesitates in guarding Thompson up close due to the risk of losing Thompson on a drive inside.

The Warriors get a stop and immediately have Curry and Thompson work together in an off-ball tandem. They come together in what seems to be a screening action, but Curry shifts his route and dives inside. This makes McCollum hesitate for a second, and against a shooter like Thompson, even a slight moment of hesitation by a defender is all that is needed for him to get off a clear shot.

The Warriors are at their best when they force the other team to turn the ball over. Lillard drives inside and runs into Alfonzo McKinnie, who stands his ground and forces Lillard to make a wayward pass that finds its way into the hands of Quinn Cook. Cook pushes the pace and locates an unmarked Thompson on the right wing.

In this sequence, the Portland defense falls asleep and loses track of Thompson on a simple pin down. The best course of action for defenses to prevent Thompson from getting off a catch-and-shoot three is for his defender to stay on his hip and deny him the space to rise up for the shot. If the defender fails to stick to him and gets caught on the screen, then the screener’s defender must switch onto Thompson in order to close the gap.

The Blazers fail to communicate a switch, and they pay by letting Thompson bury a wide-open three-point shot.

Another dimension of Thompson’s offensive game is his ability to adeptly move without the ball in his hands. Him being a constant cutting threat has been a staple of the Warriors’ motion offense for the past several years. However, the evolution of opposing defenses — combined with the open knowledge of how the Warriors’ offense operates — has often rendered their off-ball motion occasionally inept. Thompson has most notably been a victim of this; defenders like to stick to him to hinder his off-ball movement, and it has often put him out of his offensive rhythm.

Against the Blazers, Thompson was able to break free from his off-ball rut through several eye-catching cuts and dives. The Warriors’ patented low post split action allows Curry and Thompson to once again work in tandem. Curry screens for Thompson up top, forcing Thompson’s defender to cut him off from the screen and deny him from using it. However, this overplay allows Thompson an open cutting lane, and he takes advantage.

In another excellent display of defense turning into offense, Kevon Looney plays excellent post defense on Nurkic, forcing him to to throw up a wild shot. The Warriors run in transition; with Durant handling the ball and Curry running to the corner, the Blazers have their attention focused on the two superstars. Thompson uses this opportunity to dive straight toward the rim, getting the ball from Durant and finishing the up-and-under layup.

And perhaps the most egregious sin the Blazers commit on defense is during this sequence. Three defenders are stationed high on the key, including Nurkic, who opts to stay somewhat relatively close to Green. Lillard is guarding Cook on the weak side. This leaves McCollum all alone on an island against Thompson on the left corner, with no one behind him to provide help defense. Thompson takes advantage and beats McCollum on a baseline cut.

Games like these highlight the luxury — and the importance — that the Warriors have a monopoly on: when Thompson is on his A-game, the Warriors have the deadliest plan C in the league. Curry’s otherworldly shooting prowess and “gravity” has clearly changed — or “ruined” — the game as we know it; Durant’s decision to join the Warriors — transforming them into the greatest collection of high-level talent in the history of the NBA — has many fans claiming that the league has become an unfair and futile exercise.

Never has a third option been so crucial to the success of a team. When Thompson is off his game, the Warriors are often forced to rely on Curry and Durant to carry them toward victory. In today’s environment, two of the best players in the league working in tandem may not be enough.

In some ways, the true measure of dominance, the true and final form of the supervillains reveals itself when Thompson becomes the silent killer. And in the process of silently killing the Blazers’ chances at a victory, it may also have been the loudest proclamation he has made all season long.

Thirty-seven down, 45 more to go.

Stay Golden, Dub Nation.

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