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The Warriors Are Winning Klay’s Way

Golden State’s quietest shooter caught fire again, making his first 10 3-pointers and leading the team to its eighth-straight win in a blowout of the Lakers on Monday

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Stephen Curry birthed the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty. Kevin Durant made them nearly unbeatable. But there’s no better barometer for how the two-time defending NBA champions are functioning than the play of Klay Thompson.

A player whose game revolves around constant off-ball activity relies more than most on the help of his teammates. When they’re going through the motions rather than playing with purpose, Thompson can get stuck; it’s not a coincidence that his slow start to the season came amid an overarching malaise marked by injuries and in-fighting. When his fellow Warriors are invested in executing, though—when they’re spacing the floor, setting good screens, and sharing the ball—Thompson’s rhythm returns. If you’re on the other team when that happens, you are about to be crushed by a moon.

The Warriors continued their post-Christmas rampage on Monday, torching the LeBron-less Lakers in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the 130-111 final score would indicate. Golden State didn’t need much more than a half to sew this one up, burying Luke Walton’s squad with a 45-point third-quarter barrage that pushed their lead as high as 36. Thompson led the way with 23 points in the frame, drilling jumper after jumper with scarcely a split second separating catch from shot. (If you’re keeping track: only eight dribbles this time.)

Thompson became the first player in NBA history to make his first 10 3-point attempts in a game, and tied the record for most consecutive long-distance makes in a game. His only miss came on a deep heat check with just under four minutes to go in the third, when the Warriors were up 32 and Thompson likely sensed that Steve Kerr was about to pull his starters.

“It just happened to be one of those nights,” Thompson told reporters. “It was the best percentage I ever shot. But it just happened to be one of those nights, man. It’s hard to explain.”

Thompson’s had a lot of Those Nights, though. To a greater degree than any player in recent memory, he has managed to make Those Nights his calling card.

Monday was Thompson’s fifth career game with 10 or more 3-pointers; only Curry (with 12) has more. Klay finished with 44 points on 17-for-20 shooting in less than 27 minutes. The only player to score more in such little playing time is … well, him, when he set a new record for most 3-pointers made in a single game about three months ago.

Monday marked the third time in Thompson’s career that he’s spontaneously combusted for more than 40 points in fewer than 30 minutes. Only 16 other players in Basketball-Reference’s database have ever done that. None of them have done it more than once.

“You’ve got to tip your hat to him,” Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma said after the game. “I mean, anytime somebody gets that hot, is in a zone like that, it kind of just feels like everything you throw up is going in. Obviously, you can do a little bit better defensively, but I think a lot of his shots were pretty contested. Credit him for hitting them.”

Second Spectrum’s player tracking tells a slightly different story, charting Thompson as going 4-for-5 on “contested” looks, compared to 13-for-15 on “uncontested” attempts. Yes, credit Klay for knocking them down, but save some praise for Durant, Kevon Looney, and the fitting-in-quite-nicely-thank-you DeMarcus Cousins, who combined for 14 screen assists leading to 37 points on Monday, with Thompson being the prime beneficiary of all that space they created. (Still, I’m sure Klay appreciates the hat-tip from a newly minted member of the 40-in-Under-30 Club.)

Monday’s incineration continued a scorching stretch for Thompson, who appears to have been on to something when he suggested that, despite shooting just 44 percent from the field and 33.7 percent from 3 through the first 35 games of the season, he didn’t need any advice on how to fix his jumper. He’s been unreal in 2019, averaging 26.8 points in 33 minutes per game since January 1 while shooting 56.5 percent from the floor and 50.6 percent from deep while attempting 9.2 triples a night. Three weeks ago, the notion that Thompson would make his fifth straight All-Star Game seemed laughable, especially in a crowded field of potential Western reserves. But after a run that buffed out his full-season numbers—22.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists per game, 46.4 percent from the field, 38.2 percent from the arc on 7.6 attempts per game—to go with his customary defensive excellence and reputation, it might not be so far-fetched. Especially since Thompson’s torrid form dovetails nicely with Golden State’s best ball of the season.

The Warriors have won eight straight and 10 of 12 since that Christmas Day loss to the Lakers—with both losses coming by a single point in overtime—to overtake Denver for the no. 1 spot in the West. According to Cleaning the Glass’s numbers, which strip out garbage-time production, Golden State’s offense now leads the league in offensive efficiency by a full two points per 100 possessions; they have been a full eight points-per-100 better in January than second-place Denver.

They’ve only just started reintegrating Cousins, who’s clearly got some rust to knock off and a ways to go in regaining the fluidity of his movement a year after tearing his Achilles tendon. But he has hit the ground running (literally), looking like a willing screener and passer who already seems a hand-in-glove fit in the Warriors’ preferred style. Through two games, Golden State’s five-All-Stars lineup is plus-35 in 18 minutes, with a ludicrous 22 assists on 23 made field goals.

After a several-month stretch-and-yawn phase, the Warriors have started to hit their stride, and nobody represents their quickening pace better than Thompson. All it takes is a sliver of space for him to rain fire, and with the room to operate that Golden State’s creating right now, we might be in for a few more of Those Nights before all’s said and done.