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Klay Thompson is back and looking better than expected

Breaking down Klay’s return after two long years of rehab.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Golden State Warriors Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

There are some nights where you just have to forget about the stats and the numbers, and just bask in the joy and possibilities.

Klay Thompson’s return was always going to be celebrated and welcomed, no matter who the opponent was, and no matter what the end result ended up being. The painful rehab process and two-year absence all led to this monumental crescendo. The dam of emotions had already broken; even a loss wouldn’t have placed a damper on the return of a man who had given so much but lost plenty in return.

Thompson’s final stat line after the Warriors’ win against the Cleveland Cavaliers gave the impression of someone who did better than expected, but at the same time looked like a man experiencing his first real NBA game after 941 days.

A 17-point performance on 18 shots — 4-of-10 on twos, 3-of-8 on threes — is both encouraging and a telling sign of a work in progress.

Thompson displayed little rust and lethargy in terms of overall movement. He was fairly active off the ball, going off of down screens and relocating toward the opposite side of the court while also looking for open pockets of space through which he can be available through cuts.

The very first offensive possession of the game was an encouraging sight.

A simple wide down screen for Thompson is the lowest-hanging fruit that can be drawn up for him to get his hands on the ball. His willingness to put the ball on the floor and go all the way to the rim for the up-close shot — despite successive lower-leg injuries that typically sap all the mental confidence from one’s driving game — was a surprisingly pleasant sight to behold.

Even more surprising was the fact that the possession above wasn’t meant to be a play for Thompson to finish.

“I drew the first play up, not for him, but for him to catch it and move it on,” Steve Kerr said of Thompson’s first shot. “I should have known better. He just caught it and drove and scored. It was a phenomenal moment.”

Returning from lower-leg injuries — let alone two of the worst lower-leg injuries a basketball player can experience — has its physical setbacks. But the mental aspect can often be the toughest obstacle to hurdle.

It’s easy to stroll toward the rim with the confidence of the past acting as fuel — but that nagging feeling from deep within the dark recesses of one’s subconscious can all too easily plant seeds of doubt.

Can I still do this? Will I be able to land on my feet safely without fear of the worst reoccurring? I don’t want to have to go through this painful climb back to the top again... maybe I should take it easy.

Words which — if the dunk below was of any indication — did not even register within Thompson’s mind.

Thompson’s unconscious nature as a shooter and scorer has always done wonders for his ice-in-his-veins psyche, which naturally translated to his confidence in terms of moving around on the court like the spry, pre-injury version of his self.

For someone who’s had to hurdle that mental challenge of moving around post-injury without fear, Kevon Looney finds it unsurprising that Thompson was unfazed by the prospect of having to be mobile and agile upon his return.

“When he was rehabbing, he had 100% confidence in his body,” Looney said. “He was out there moving around, he didn’t look scared doing any type of movements and I know from experience that’s kind of the last thing that comes. It took me a while for me to get over that fear of being able to trust your body. He seems like he’s already there. He’s out there not just to fit in but to be an All-Star-type player.”

Even if Thompson chose to relatively limit his movements and opted to take it easy, his presence on the floor served as a potent reminder of the conundrum defenses faced in the past. Having one-half of the greatest shooting tandem in history is a proven championship-winning formula.

As Thompson’s first three of the night — and first in two years — can attest, a team that thrives on opponents picking their poison just added another toxin to their arsenal.

No longer do we have to imagine a world where defenders splitting the difference on the weak side will have to choose between a 41.8% three-point shooter in Andrew Wiggins and a career-41.9% shooter in Thompson. Cedi Osman in the possession above chooses to deny a potential kick-out to Wiggins in the corner, which leaves Thompson open for the practice shot on the wing.

Lanes are opened simply because Thompson parks himself in the corner, with his defender unwilling to detach. Eliminating a potential help defender allows someone like Stephen Curry room to operate, such as on this drive off of double drag screens that garners him a layup:

On a baseline out-of-bounds play out of a timeout, a fake hand off to Thompson serves as the decoy to weak-side “Hammer” screen action for Jordan Poole — a plug-and-play scenario where Curry is the typical decoy, but Thompson, who equally demands attention from defenses, serving as a viable substitute.

It will take a while for Thompson to obtain a consistent rhythm, but after time lost on the bench watching games and spent on rehab, he’ll have all the time he’ll need to do what he does best: shoot his shots without a care in the world, until he captures that classic unconscious hot streak.

The true test of Thompson’s condition, however, may be on the other end of the floor. Once known as one of the league’s premier perimeter defenders, his on-ball defensive prowess against opposing marquee guards and wings — especially during high-stakes situations — is what has saved the Warriors on several occasions.

Once the adrenaline wears off and the excitement of a long-awaited return tempers, Thompson will have to deal with the prospect of getting his wind and lateral movement up to par.

It wouldn’t be surprising that guards that he can normally keep up with will blow by him at the point of attack. He may occasionally look like a deer in headlights, and those moments will frustrate him to no end.

This particular defensive possession is a close-out that pre-injury Thompson would’ve recovered from quickly:

Re-acclimating himself to the speed of an NBA game may take faster than expected — or it could be a slow and steady process. But Thompson has the benefit of experience and muscle memory imprinted within his fabric as a defender. He has previously shown the propensity to adjust and recover from his mistakes.

A blow by from a close-out in the possession above is turned into a softer close-out and promising laterality in the possession below:

Some possessions were more indicative of Thompson’s old self. He gets switched onto Darius Garland on the possession below; save for the late foul call which could’ve gone either way, Thompson largely stayed with Garland, used his length and height advantage, and made the young Cavs star work.

Draymond Green once joked about a lineup of Curry, Poole, Wiggins, Thompson, and himself at the five, in a potential hyper-small closing lineup. Thompson has never spent any considerable amount of time as a stretch four — that would entail him guarding much bigger men who may hunt for a perceived mismatch in the low post.

Thompson’s current limit in terms of lateral movement may see him be “eased” into defending relatively stationary assignments such as opposing bigs. That may put a strain upon his body in ways other than having to move around — but on switches against the Cavs’ bigs, he brandished the strength to budge them out of their spots and make them work for their points.

There are more difficult tests up ahead for Thompson. Switches against someone athletic and explosive at the point of attack such as Ja Morant will be monitored. Depending on which end of the upcoming road back-to-back Thompson will play in, the Chicago Bulls’ Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan will present additional challenges; the Milwaukee Bucks’ Khris Middleton may have Thompson on him for a couple of possessions.

Thompson will run through a gauntlet of tough assignments — but as the extensive rehab process and time spent away from the game he loves has proven, he isn’t one to shy away from adversity.

“I was so grateful to just compete again,” Thompson said. “It’s been a long road, but I’m also just proud of myself for persevering. It was a special moment. I’ll never forget. I’m not going to say it was the equivalent to winning a championship, but man, it was pretty freaking close.

“There were times, in the past, where you second guess yourself. You think if you are going to be the same player or have the same explosion or whatever term and just to be able to go out there and shoot the ball and play defense and compete, man, it was special.”

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