It’s been alarming to see the amount of times Klay Thompson has been written off this season.
In a sense, you can’t blame people for expressing even an ounce of doubt. Thompson clearly hasn’t been the same two-way stalwart he was prior to his debilitating lower-leg injuries that sidelined him for two years. The combination of bad health luck and aging into his thirties isn’t exactly a bullish indicator of him returning to his pre-injury form.
But to see some people expressing outright vitriol — i.e., wanting Thompson to be traded, wanting him off “their” team, etc. — isn’t exactly the kind of thing anyone wants to read or hear. Fandom can be very much a “heat-of-the-moment” type of experience, but I would’ve assumed Thompson has compiled enough equity and clout to at least be given the benefit of the doubt.
Perhaps Steph Curry is the only Warriors legend immune from such talk — well deserved as the franchise superstar who transformed a bottom-dweller into a dynastic powerhouse. But while Thompson may not be having his best season efficiency wise — he’s putting up 20.3 points per game on 45/39/89 shooting splits (2P/3P/FT) and a 53.5 TS% (around four percentage points below league average) — he’s been on a recent upward trend during this five-game homestand, four of which he played in.
Over his last four games, Thompson is scoring 34.5 points per game on 52/42/93 shooting splits (2P/3P/FT) and a 60.4 TS% — all of which have come without having his Splash Brother on the court with him.
Thompson’s game has never really been predicated on athleticism and leaping ability. While his ability to be nimble and agile in terms of lateral movement has taken a hit due to injuries and age, it’s still at a passable level to at least replicate the kind of off-ball movement that burned defenses on a game-to-game basis during his prime.
Thompson should still command enough attention from defenses. Top-locking (cutting him off from using off-ball screens), lock-and-trail (staying closely attached to him around screens) and fighting over ball screens should still be the recommended coverages.
The Atlanta Hawks are by no means a terrible defensive team, but they aren’t elite either. They allow 112.9 points per 100 possessions — 15th in the league. They have enough perimeter stoppers to at least make shooters and ball-handlers’ lives difficult, with the only glaring exception being Trae Young.
But even the most capable of perimeter defenders have a hard time keeping track of someone off the ball who continuously pokes holes in the defense until a gap is sizable enough to be attacked:
Draymond Green calls for “Away” (him holding up two fingers and pointing toward the weak-side corner is the tell), which is staggered downscreens for a shooter to curl around. This is a common NBA set for deadly movement shooters such as Thompson, something the Warriors have been running throughout Steve Kerr’s coaching tenure.
With Dejounte Murray initially defending Thompson, he passes Thompson off to De’Andre Hunter, which should be the correct way of defending this off-ball action. But this is where screening ingenuity — in the form of Kevon Looney re-screening toward the opposite direction — comes in to set Thompson free for the shot.
Later on, the Warriors once again run “Away” for Thompson — but with a twist:
Thompson — with Murray still guarding him — curls around the first downscreen and cuts inside, often referred to as the “Twirl” option of “Away”. The Hawks’ coverage on off-ball screens is to lock-and-trail, but Murray falls behind and gets caught up on the screen. Young isn’t thinking “switch” and is worried about his man. With no low-man help coming from the weak side, Thompson receives the pass and strolls his way to an easy bucket.
In a similar vein to how the Warriors attacked Damian Lillard using guard-guard “ghost” screens during their win against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Warriors also targeted Young using the same guard-guard actions. Thompson took advantage of this by driving into the paint, drawing help, and making the simple read:
Take note of how the advantage was created: The Hawks don’t want Young to switch, so they have him hedge and recover on the screen. But the hedge virtually acts as a screen on his own teammate, allowing Thompson to turn the corner for the paint touch and assist.
A notable hallmark of Thompson’s upward trajectory during this stretch has been his willingness to make the correct passing reads, mostly out of advantages created from paint touches. The numbers don’t particularly stand out from him (3.3 assists over his last four games), but as a result of becoming the featured threat in half-court sets, he has become cognizant enough to let his teammates finish the advantages he creates.
Continuing the theme of attacking Young — and the Hawks’ reluctance to let him switch and defend in space during isolation possessions — the Warriors didn’t hesitate attacking Young’s side of the floor with off-ball actions such as wide pindowns and split-cut screens set by whoever Young was guarding (often Donte DiVincenzo):
The Hawks committing blunders in terms of coverages on screens — i.e., whether to go under, over, or switch — allowed Thompson to hit several of his shots in the clutch. On a Warriors set they like to run for Thompson — which they call “51” — Thompson sets a screen in a double-drag/double-ball-screen alignment:
The Hawks’ coverage on this is to switch everything. Thompson gets a new defender (Onyeka Okongwu) on him, with Green then coming over to set a pin-in screen for Thompson.
Okongwu points to Murray, indicating to him that he should switch onto Thompson — but Murray doesn’t get the message and is instead stuck on the Green pin-in, leaving no one to close out toward Thompson.
Arguably nothing beats the spectacle of watching a Klay Thompson heater. When his hands are as hot as freshly spewed volcanic lava, feeding the hot hand is often the best course of action.
The Warriors fed him during the moments that mattered — so much so that even for someone who isn’t an excellent isolation scorer, it simply did not matter. Thompson delivered and became the man the Warriors needed him to be.
The Warriors needed every bit of Thompson’s 54 points on 39 shots (10-of-21 on threes) and 67.7 TS% to win their fifth-straight game. They’re undefeated in this current homestand without the services of their franchise superstar and premier wing defender. Additional injuries to Jonathan Kuminga, James Wiseman, and JaMychal Green have decimated their depth even further.
They are 20-18, tied with the Phoenix Suns and only half a game behind the sixth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers. The team is hanging on a thread and are finding ways to survive. Thompson has a tendency to be streaky, but they’ll need him to shed that label and maintain this positive trajectory if they are to keep surviving.
With what Thompson has already accomplished throughout his career, he should command enough faith that he will do such a thing.