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Was Golden State’s Cautious Approach With Klay Thompson Kind of Reckless?

The Warriors sat the star Splash Brother for Game 3, in the hopes of getting him back for the second half of the NBA Finals. But what if losing that game costs them the series?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Things are not going well for the Warriors at present. Golden State is down 2-1 to the Toronto Raptors. It is the first time they’ve been behind 2-1 in the NBA Finals since 2015, the year of their first title in this ongoing run of championship appearances. After they lost the first game of this series, they made it pretty plain that they weren’t sweating it—that the only thing the Warriors worry about is the Warriors. They see everything through the prism of their own reflection, but right now they ought to see the truth: They aren’t making things any easier on themselves.

Before Game 3, the Klay Thompson ad with Michael K. Williams played on the scoreboard above the court at Oracle Arena, while the actual Klay Thompson did not play on the court at Oracle Arena. Thompson was active but unavailable—a parsing of language so precise that it made the word computer in my brain short-circuit. The Warriors decided to sit Klay for that game because of a hamstring injury despite Thompson’s lobbying hard to play. As Steve Kerr said back in Toronto after Thompson got hurt in Game 2, Klay could be “half-dead and he would say he’s fine.” Wednesday night was the first time he’s missed a postseason game in his career.

Following the Game 3 loss, Kerr was asked whether he regretted not having played Thompson. They certainly could have used his offense, not to mention his defense when Kyle Lowry had the Kyle Lowry Game on the very night Klay wasn’t around to help guard him. Kerr said he “never would have forgiven myself” if something had happened to Thompson and made the injury worse. I respect it. But there was also an ESPN report prior to tipoff that the Warriors preferred to sit Klay in order to “protect his sore hamstring for the rest of the NBA Finals.” The implication there is that the Warriors chose to play the long game in a seven-game series and bet that (1) they could steal Game 3 without Thompson, or (2) win the series anyway if they lost Game 3. Now we know that the first one didn’t work out—and the second one is very much in jeopardy.

The reasoning behind the Klay decision was confusing. If the Warriors were worried about the back half of the series, why not also bench Steph Curry and Draymond Green in Game 3 when they were down 16 with under five minutes to go? If the idea was to keep Klay fresh, why didn’t that also apply to Steph, who had to give a 43-minute, 47-point Deadpool-style maximum effort in a loss? The messages seem mixed there. Meanwhile, you have Andre Iguodala—who had an MRI on his leg after Game 1—stipulating that it might not be smart to play but “you only have a week left to gut it out.” All injuries are not the same—but the thinking behind how to handle them evidently isn’t uniform either.

Considering the report that the Warriors wanted to save Thompson “for the rest of the Finals,” it’s fair to wonder whether he would have played had it been Game 6 or 7 instead of Game 3. In fact, late Wednesday night, Kerr said that he expected Thompson to play Game 4 on Friday evening. And following practice at Oracle Arena on Thursday afternoon, Thompson said he knew the night before that he’d be “good to go” for Game 4. He wanted to play Game 3 and begged to get out there but said it wasn’t his call, even though he swore “my body feels really good.” Not to get too body-language doctor here, but he appeared frustrated as he slumped in his chair near the edge of the court at Oracle Arena and talked about how it all unfolded.

After Golden State dropped the first game, Kerr joked about all the breathless invocations of various stats that supposedly underscored how doomed they were. He said as soon as they lose a game, “it will be on the crawl that now we only have a 19.7 percent chance of winning the series,” but if they win the next one, “we’ll have a 42.7 percent chance of not losing the series.” The Warriors might not find the facts so amusing if they’re honest with themselves: Teams that lose Game 3 after being tied 1-1 have gone on to win just seven of 38 NBA Finals. Not to mention that there’s a real case to be made that the Raptors represent the most difficult playoff challenge the Warriors have faced since they fell behind to the Houston Rockets 3-2 in last year’s Western Conference finals. They needed a Chris Paul injury and 27 straight missed 3s by Houston to overcome that deficit and advance. They’re going to need some things to break right for them this time, too.

If there is a gray area with Thompson, the Kevin Durant situation appears more black and white. He’s out again for Game 4. It has been whispered all series that KD is close to returning. Actually, not even whispered. In Toronto, between games 1 and 2, Draymond Green said he thought Durant would be back soon. That doesn’t seem likely, though. Durant hasn’t practiced with them, and hasn’t played any five-on-five or even any three-on-three. KD’s return has been viewed as the Warriors’ trump card, as though the moment he’s good to go the Raptors are as good as finished.

Except the Raptors don’t look finished or anything close to that. Thompson said it would “suck” if Durant doesn’t play in the Finals, but he also added that he thinks the Warriors can win either way. You wouldn’t expect him to say anything else, even as the overall outlook on the series has gotten gloomier for the Warriors. The Raptors have so far given Golden State everything it can handle. Let’s not forget that the Warriors needed an 18-0 third-quarter run in Game 2—which was a 24-1 run if you count the back end of the second quarter—in order to win the only game they’ve claimed this series. And they had Thompson, who scored 25 much-needed points and played 32 much-needed minutes before he got hurt. The Warriors can say they’re only down 2-1, but there’s a not-so-alternate universe where the defending champs are down 3-0 right now.

The Warriors have had to navigate these injuries. That’s not easy, and I’m not discounting it. Green huffed that the “haters don’t care guys are hurt.” He had a point beneath the bluster. Golden State got a not-fully-healthy DeMarcus Cousins back—the other night he was asked how close to 100 percent he is and he said he didn’t know over and over like a record that kept skipping—and had to fold him in while he’s clearly not himself. They lost Kevon Looney at nearly the exact same time. I am hesitant to knock them because there is often so much we do not know about injuries and the management of these things. (Like with the rest of the wounded Warriors, there was an ESPN report that Looney could potentially return at some point during the Finals.) And beyond that, the schedule is doing them no favors; this swing in Northern California is the only part of the series with just one day off for rest between games. That complicates things considerably.

After the Warriors won Game 2—thanks in part to Iguodala being a useful utility player at the exact right time, as per usual—Curry called the Raptors’ leaving Iggy wide open for his game-sealing 3 “disrespectful.” If that’s the case, what do you call the Warriors’ decision to sit Klay when he wanted to and said he could play in favor of running out a starting lineup of Cousins, Green, Iguodala, Curry, and Shaun Livingston? Maybe the Warriors thought they could pull off the flex, but it ended up as a face-plant. For context, that is the 10th different starting lineup the Warriors have used this postseason, which is the most in nearly five decades, per The New York Times’ Marc Stein.

After a while, it’s hard to hide the underlying cracks in those kinds of on-the-fly DIY patch jobs. Consider their lineup to start the second quarter of Game 3: Iguodala, Cousins, Livingston, Quinn Cook, and Jonas Jerebko. That went about as well as you’d expect—which was not well at all. In that scenario, they had Jerebko on Pascal Siakam who, as my man (and your man) Dan Devine put it to me during the game, was a terrible idea. Siakam roasted Swedish Larry Bird. Meanwhile, Boogie got cooked by Marc Gasol. That particular matchup went so bad so fast that Kerr went away from Cousins (who played 19 minutes) in favor of Andrew Bogut (who played 22 minutes).

Defense wasn’t the Warriors’ only problem against the Raptors in Game 3. In addition to missing Thompson’s perimeter defense, they sure could have used his offense. It seems crazy to write that Golden State, of all teams, needs more scoring, but it’s also true. At one point midway through the second quarter, the Warriors had Iguodala, Curry, Green, Alfonzo McKinnie, and Bogut on the floor. One brutal hot-potato possession ended with Draymond hoisting an air ball as the shot clock expired. Save Curry, they looked lost and listless at that end of the floor. In nearly every way, it seems like the Warriors are ratcheting up the degree of difficulty on themselves when the Raptors were doing a fine job of that all on their own. We should also pause here to credit Toronto for injecting some drama into the NBA Finals when so many of us thought the parade route was locked in for the Bay Area before Game 1 even tipped off.

Admittedly, that kind of thinking would likely irk Draymond, who said “everybody wants to see us lose” following Game 3. He’s not wrong—though the Warriors are doing a good job of helping “the haters” get what they want. But per protocol, Green waved off any notion that the Warriors are concerned. He said they fought on Wednesday and lost, vowed they would fight again, and insisted, “I don’t really see us losing too many more.” He looked and sounded like a man trying to convince everyone in the room—including himself.