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Encouraging signs of Klay Thompson rounding into form as the playoffs approach

One of them has been Thompson dribbling less.

Los Angeles Lakers v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It wasn’t just Klay Thompson’s superb performance from beyond the arc against the Los Angeles Lakers — where he scored 33 points on 6-of-10 shooting on threes — that were, in my view, encouraging signs that the Thompson of old was finally starting to emerge from its three-year cocoon.

Two relatively nondescript possessions — considering the context surrounding them (one being that the Warriors were facing a severely depleted Lakers team that had already been eliminated from playoff contention) — came into immediate mind. Both of them weren’t three-point shots.

The first — a run-of-the-mill wide down-screen action for Thompson in early offense:

Two years of NBA-game inactivity born out of two consecutive lower leg injuries can take a massive toll, especially on one’s confidence in terms of mobility. Pre-injuries, Thompson was widely considered as one of the best off-ball movers and cutters in the NBA, able to use his reputation as a knockdown shooter and how defenders opted to guard him to his advantage.

Now, with Thompson’s mobility called into doubt (reasonably — after all, Thompson’s injuries are coupled with the fact that he is on the wrong side of 30), a reasonable barometer of how quickly he would be able to round into form as the playoffs approach is how quickly he would recover his ability to move and cut off the ball.

The possession above is vintage Thompson. Kent Bazemore defends him topside to deny him shooting space on the catch, and Thompson responds by curling around the down-screen and attacking Bazemore’s overplay. He strolls all the way to the rim and nails the finish.

The second possession that was encouraging came on the defensive end:

Along with his off-ball mobility on offense, Thompson was widely known as an extremely sturdy perimeter defender who could make opposing perimeter scorers’ lives difficult. His combination of size, length, and an uncanny ability to cover ground quickly ate up shorter and quicker guards.

But of course, lower leg injuries can also call that into doubt. Thompson’s ability to defend quicker perimeter operators has been a mixed bag overall, but him slowly regaining his old form has also translated to a much better time keeping up in terms of lateral movement.

Talen Horton-Tucker is no Ja Morant or Devin Booker, despite all the promise he has shown. But he’s still a dangerous operator when given enough downhill momentum to go all the way to the rim, especially because of his stocky build that allows him to power through defenders.

But Thompson displays great laterality in the possession above — enough to keep Horton-Tucker in front, deny him a lane to penetrate, and settle for a tough leaning jumper.

Expect Thompson’s ability to switch onto smaller and quicker guards to be better in the coming days. His ability to switch up and down the positional spectrum will be key, as it was in the days of the dynasty — but the emphasis post-injury has seemingly shifted more toward the bigger end of that spectrum.

This sequence from the Warriors’ scintillating victory against the Utah Jazz comes to mind:

Draymond Green jokingly said months ago that Thompson was returning to a different NBA, one that may demand him to guard frontcourt players more often. That joke is looking more and more of a serious outcome.

Thompson will be relied on to guard opposing 4s and 5s, especially as the Warriors shift to a smaller switch-heavy lineup with Green at the 5. It wouldn’t be a surprising sight to see Thompson absorb bumps from taller and burlier forwards, or try to survive on deep seals against behemoth centers.

But against the modern 4s of the league — Bojan Bogdanović in the possession above, for example — Thompson has the requisite laterality to keep them in front, while also having enough strength to match their physicality.

Of course, the core of Thompson’s value will always be his ability to knock down shots from beyond the arc. The condition of his legs are crucial — unconditioned legs can lead to jumpers that fall short; overcorrecting for short jumpers can, in turn, lead to shots that have too much oomph in them, resulting in them hitting back-iron.

But if these last several games are of any indication, Thompson is beginning to find that good old rhythm that has sparked plenty of legendary Warriors runs, most especially during the playoffs. Thompson has put up the following numbers over the last 10 games:

  • 25.9 points
  • 45/41/90 shooting splits
  • 56.9% True Shooting

Part of Thompson’s struggles during this season has partly been attributed to a tough shot diet — mostly of his own making — that has seen him put the ball on the floor more often and create off of several dribbles.

Consider this: from his first game in January 9 against the Cleveland Cavaliers up till the Warriors’ March 10 matchup against the Denver Nuggets (21 games), here are the frequency of his field goal attempts per number of dribbles:

  • 0 dribbles: 45.9%
  • 1 dribble: 17.1%
  • 2 dribbles: 14.6%
  • 3-6 dribbles: 16.8%
  • 7+ dribbles: 5.7%

Compare such frequencies to those over Thompson’s last 10 games:

  • 0 dribbles: 51.2%
  • 1 dribble: 21.9%
  • 2 dribbles: 10.0%
  • 3-6 dribbles: 15.9%
  • 7+ dribbles: 1.0%

Thompson has reduced the frequency of his dribbling expeditions, and has replaced them with more catch-and-shoot attempts and spot-up opportunities with as little dribbling (in the form of escape/rhythm dribbles) as possible.

Thompson is much better when he runs around a single down-screen, or around several staggered screens in the Warriors’ staple “Motion Strong” sets:

Thompson drilling shot after shot around down-screens has the effect of opening up the Warriors offense and the several options that it engenders. Playing around with different combinations on the floor — those that complement and enhance the varying skill sets of each player — is made more palatable when Thompson has it going.

Case in point:

Instead of Thompson as the beneficiary of the staggered screen setup, it’s Gary Payton II who goes around the down-screens — not to shoot off of them, but to act as the beneficiary of Thompson’s pull around a subsequent down-screen set by Nemanja Bjelica. Payton uses the defenders’ confusion to cut and dive toward the rim, with Andre Iguodala finding him with expert precision.

When the Warriors finally do get to add Stephen Curry to this version of Thompson, the offense is bound for an explosion. Even when Curry was paired with a subpar version of Thompson, the numbers have been quite gaudy — in 491 minutes of playing time together this season, the Splash Brothers have outscored opponents by nearly 9 points per 100 possessions.

Add Green to the equation — the classic trio has played a mere 11 minutes together this season — and there is even less reason for Thompson to self-create and dribble more than twice when he touches the ball. The dance of gravity between the Splash Brothers, coupled with the playmaking chops of Green, could once again blitz teams in the mold of the dynasty years.