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The Klay Game

One year ago, Klay Thompson saved the Warriors’ season and changed the NBA landscape by taking over Game 6 with a 41-point eruption

(AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Kevin Durant may be heading to the Finals as a Warrior, but it was just one postseason ago that he and Russell Westbrook were making a press conference mockery of Golden State.

After taking a 3–1 lead in the Western Conference finals, the Thunder dropped the fifth game and were headed back to Chesapeake Energy Arena in the hope that they could close out the series and advance to the organization’s second Finals. It seemed likely if not probable. Steph Curry’s shooting had been reduced to mere human-level accuracy, and the Thunder led through the first 44 minutes of Game 6. With 5:48 left in the final clip, up 94–87, Russ and KD had an 88 percent chance of advancing.

But they didn’t. And a year later to the day, Durant awaits the Cavs, while Russ is out of the playoffs, firing off romper opinions rather than shots — due to Klay Thompson.

His Game 6 performance saved the game, the series, and the season. Golden State was poised for an early exit at halftime, even though the Warriors’ deficit was just five points at the half, but the home team had the authority. Curry ended the second quarter with just two made field goals, and Golden State collectively turned the ball over 10 times before the break. Then came Klay’s second half.

Klay erupted for 41 points, 33 of which came from deep: 26 in the second half, 19 in the fourth quarter. It was the largest known group conversion to Klaytheism since the movement’s founding — creating even more believers than his 37-point quarter the year before. (More joined the movement after he dropped 60 points on the Pacers with just 90 seconds of possession time back in December).

If the Warriors had gone on to win the Finals, this fourth quarter would have entered the annals of legendary 12-minute spans. He began the period with a quick catch-and-release shot over Anthony Morrow.

The next trip down the floor, Klay hit again. This time, KD was guarding him off the switch. The Thunder had a 111 defensive rating with Durant on the floor, the second-worst of all starters. (Klay’s future teammate had a very different fourth quarter, finishing 1-for-8 from the field and turning the ball over twice in the final three minutes.)

The ninth 3-pointer came a little over a minute later, off a rebounded Curry miss. Klay danced to the perimeter with his back turned, and launched the ball the second he faced the net. The game was within five, and the shot tied the record previously held by Ray Allen, Vince Carter, Jason Terry, and Rex Chapman for most made 3s in a playoff game.

Klay’s 10th — now listed in religious texts as proof of a higher power — was the only ugly shot the man has ever taken in his 27 years. Nearly touching the half-court logo, with Russ pressed on him, Klay’s footwork wasn’t set for a deep shot. He forced a pull-up anyway, a configuration his former agent Bill Duffy later called "a corkscrew," and broke the record.

His final 3-pointer, with 1:35 left in the fourth, broke the 101–101 tie. The Thunder never led, or even scored, for the remainder of the game, and Thompson ended the first epoch of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

"If we win [the Finals]," Harrison Barnes said afterward, " [Game 6] will be the game we remember. That will be the best game of any of our lives."

Of course, they did not win it all, and LeBron’s Game 7 soon replaced the Western Conference finals tide-turner as the one to remember. But Klay’s performance is still worth the recollection, if only for the wires it tripped.

If Durant and Russ had advanced to the Finals, LeBron’s promise to his hometown might still be left unfulfilled. Curry’s Warriors could have been a one-Finals-trip team, never reaching "era" status. And Durant would, likely, still be wearing the navy alternate jersey instead of getting subjected to sleeves on Saturdays.

"This is nothing coming from Kevin," Steve Kerr would later say, "but I think if you just look at it objectively and circumstantially, if [the Thunder] beat us, they go to the Finals."

And if they go to the Finals?

"Tough to see [Durant] going here."

Which is where Golden State is now, resting before Thursday night. Thompson’s role against Cleveland this year, like the rest of the Warriors roster, will be different. His defense on Kyrie Irving will likely be his most crucial contribution — particularly in a postseason when his offensive production has dipped. He’s averaging eight fewer points than in the regular season, including the worst shooting percentages of his career.

But the Cavaliers would be smart to remember last year’s Game 6. In the five games that led up to it, Klay shot 30.2 percent from deep, and still scored 25 or more points all but twice. Even at the start of his historic 41-point game, he opened with a discouraging 2-for-9 from the field. There could be a Klay Game waiting in the Finals, and this time, he’ll be feasting on Durant’s assists, not his defense.

Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this piece misidentified the defender on Klay Thompson at the start of the fourth quarter; it was Anthony Morrow, not Kevin Durant. Additionally, this post previously attributed Thompson’s 37-point quarter to the wrong year; that performance was in 2015, not 2016.