For what felt like the first time in the Splash Brothers era, Klay Thompson’s shot selection was the subject of much-heated debate.
With the Golden State Warriors down by two points to the New York Knicks, Steve Kerr drew up an after-timeout (ATO) play that was seemingly designed to get Stephen Curry the ball. It was a no-brainer choice — Curry is the superstar, the undisputed best player on the team, and the one who drilled a game winner not too long ago against the Houston Rockets.
But Thompson had other plans.
The play seemed like it called for a handoff by Thompson to Curry, but Thompson keeps possession and decides to take Evan Fournier off the dribble. Thompson takes Fournier to the free-throw line, gets him up in the air with a fake, and finds himself with an open jumper that misses.
Statistics aside, you will most probably make that shot 9-out-of-10 times if you’re Thompson; it just so happened that this instance was the 1-out-of-10.
Another justification for Thompson calling his own number: his effectiveness on self-created shots this season. Nearly 30% of his field-goal makes this season have been unassisted — on track to be a career high. His previous career high on unassisted field-goal makes was 27%, during his rookie season.
But that didn’t stop Thompson from catching all sorts of flack from certain segments of the fandom — the main criticism being that he should’ve found Curry instead of taking the shot.
Which is a wild assessment, for reasons twofold:
- As aforementioned, Thompson had a wide-open shot that just missed. It happens.
- Curry was being face-guarded on the perimeter, and had Thompson kicked back out to Curry, there would only be time for a deep heave. While Curry has made those shots in the past, it’s still a low-percentage shot relative to the one Thompson took.
Thompson is many things, but you certainly wouldn’t call him timid. As someone who famously and unabashedly stated, “Dog, I get paid to shoot,” Thompson will let it fly if he smells even a sliver of space.
He had all the space in the world against the Knicks in that final possession. It didn’t go in. It was still a great look. End of discussion.
But to place a nail in the coffin of all the unjustified criticism hurled toward Thompson, look no further than his performance against the Los Angeles Lakers: 33 points on 22 shots (7-of-13 on twos, 5-of-9 on threes), and 68.3% True Shooting. Three of Thompson’s five made threes came during the fourth quarter, during what the NBA construes as “clutch” period (score difference is within five points with less than five minutes left in the game).
But before we get into those clutch shots, there were signs of Thompson waxing hot and putting up what is unquestionably his best scoring performance of the season. Some of that was due to placing Thompson in spots where he can succeed the most — specifically, the left corner.
On an extremely limited sample size, Thompson is shooting 8-of-13 (61.5%) on left-corner threes. The Warriors certainly know that, and have been keen on purposefully stationing Thompson on the left corner as a spacer. Collapsing defenses through penetration or roll-man tags unleashes Thompson’s deadliness within that precious and most efficient piece of real estate.
They’ve even installed a specific baseline-out-of-bounds set (BLOBs) for Thompson to get an open corner look — a simple play that involves a sneaky pin-in screen that, should the defense fail to pay attention to and address through timely switching, will leave Thompson all alone and with all the time and space to get his shot off.
Thompson’s shot-making chops began to crescendo as the game went on. The Lakers came back after trailing by as much as 15 points — but Thompson was instrumental in warding off the Lakers’ rally through some timely buckets.
Not long after getting his layup blocked by Lakers rookie Austin Reaves, Thompson runs in transition after a forced turnover and goes right at Reaves. He draws a foul and manages to sink the layup, which barely gets past the chase-down-block attempt from LeBron James.
On another BLOB set, Thompson serves everyone a reminder as to why it’s extremely difficult to guard him while curling around screens. Talen Horton-Tucker has the mindset of guarding Thompson over screens, which allows him to close the distance quickly. But Thompson, ever the shrewd operator, uses a shot fake and an escape dribble to break free of Horton-Tucker’s presence.
The importance of not giving up an offensive rebound has been on full display over the past four games, two of which were losses — but against the Lakers, the shoe was also on the other foot. An offensive rebound by Kevon Looney allows someone like Thompson to take advantage of a non-set defense.
Thompson’s threes in the clutch were a heart-pounding mixture of skill and fortunate circumstance. The luck aspect came on what should have been a Curry turnover — had it not been deflected toward Thompson’s shooting pocket.
The saying goes: Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good. But in this instance, it was better that luck favored the bounce going towards someone who is really, really good.
It was simply awesome to watch Thompson place a huge strain on the Lakers defense through his off-ball movement and relocations. Crisp switching and flawless screen navigation are required for defenders to keep track of one of the greatest catch-and-shoot snipers in history.
A slight miscommunication on a switch or ending up on the wrong side of a screen are grounds for being punished by someone like Thompson.
The Warriors are fond of Curry and Thompson setting back-screens for one another, especially on sideline-out-of-bounds (SLOB) sets like the one below.
Russell Westbrook and Avery Bradley switch the back-screen, with Bradley now taking on Thompson, who has a height advantage over the 6’3” Bradley. Thompson relocates to the weak-side wing.
Jordan Poole does something subtle but brilliant: he sets a brush screen for Thompson, all while taking Reaves with him. Bradley — not keen on switching — now has to navigate around both Reaves and Poole to catch up to Thompson. But while Bradley was able to get to Thompson, a combination of being on the wrong side to contest and also being too small to affect the shot renders his close-out ineffective.
Thompson’s final clutch three was courtesy of another offensive rebound. This time, Otto Porter Jr. hauls in the Poole miss; without hesitation, he looks for Thompson — the hot hand — and gives him the ball.
Shooting 37.4% on threes going into the game, Thompson’s 5-of-9 performance improved his mark to 38.9%. With improving conditioning and his legs starting to stabilize, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to think that a regression to the mean is in the books for him — which means finishing the regular season with a mark that exceeds 40%.
But more than just the raw percentages, Thompson proved that his penchant for stepping up during crucial moments was another aspect of his game that never really left him. He lives for moments like these; when the situation calls for a clutch shot, give the ball to Thompson and he will, more often than not, deliver.
“Than not” made an appearance against the Knicks, and that was license for some to chastise Thompson for his decision to take the shot. “More often” came out against the Lakers — which served as a reminder that to doubt Thompson is to doubt his place in history and what has made him who he is.
Klay Thompson gets paid to shoot. Let him earn his money.