PHOENIX – It’s rare to see Klay Thompson so angry. But he was hotter than a tea from Starbucks. Barking loud at Devin Booker. Pacing with a Player’s Ball strut, as he does when he’s hyped.
Before long, Thompson was in Booker’s face. Then shoving Suns forward Mikal Bridges off him. Then being held back by his teammates, mainly Stephen Curry and assistant coach Chris DeMarco. Then yelling some magic words to referee Ed Malloy, prompting the first ejection of Thompson’s career. It took 796 games, including playoffs.
As Thompson left the court Tuesday night at Footprint Center, in the third quarter of what became a 134-105 Warriors’ loss to Phoenix, he hurled more barbs toward the home bench. He even pointed to his left hand, where figuratively and emphatically, he has four championship rings to floss. Four more than the entire Suns’ organization was surely the point.
“Four rings,” Booker said after the game, sharing what Thompson kept saying. “He repeated it over and over.”
But this wasn’t about Booker. Not entirely. Booker, on this night, was but the lead singer of a chorus that’s been harmonizing about Thompson’s demise for years now. Those who want his best days to be behind him. And Thompson is bent on rejecting the notion.
Beneath all the commotion in the Warriors’ second regular-season loss in four games is the lingering internal battle Thompson is waging. This is a reminder that his journey is not over.
Yes, he made it back to action after missing two seasons. Yes, he won another title and was a significant piece in his first year back. Yes, he had an offseason free of rehabilitation. But the road to reclaim his game, and the fear his name brought, is a winding one and unique in its resistance.
Tuesday was a window into why this can be grueling, and why it’s still arguably the challenge of his career. Thompson had two points on 1-for-8 shooting, missing all five of his 3-point attempts, another rough offensive performance. He’s still on a minutes restriction, which must feel like an ankle monitor for a player, a man, who relishes his freedom. So when he got into a verbal spar with the Suns’ superstar, Thompson was triggered.
“He and Book have gotten into it a little bit over the years,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I remember four or five years ago when the book first came out. Klay was in his prime and they went to it one night in Oracle. There were no ejections, but they are both competitive and they are guarding each other.”
Considering his history of battling with Booker, Thompson probably came into this game hoping to shoot the lights out and not let a rival one-up him. But no. 11 is not in full control of those powers. He’s still working his way back. Still scaling the statue of his own legend. Still determined to prove his conviction is absolutely true.
He is Klay Alexander Thompson, first of his name. Killa Klay. Lord of the Game Sixes. The Spirit of a Dynasty. Deliverer of Postseason Miracles. Possessor of the Four Rings.
“Four rings. He repeated it over and over.”
Oh, he wants so badly to summon that player. No sweeter rebuttal than the sound of a net splashing. But part of the frustration that boiled over in rare fashion Tuesday is that he can’t summon him right now, try as he might.
The Warriors fell apart after Thompson was ejected. The visitors managed just 20 points in the third quarter, missing all seven of their 3s and committing seven turnovers. They had been rolling in the first half, making 51 percent of their shots and staying within arms reach of a Phoenix squad they couldn’t defend. But once the Warriors cooled off, it was over. And Thompson couldn’t save them.
“I’m such a perfectionist,” he said at shootaround before the game. “I want to be great right now. But, like, I realized, man it’s a long season and I’d rather peak come playoff time versus, you know, early November or January.”
A fast break layup by Draymond Green cut the Phoenix lead to 79-76 with 8:44 remaining in the third. About a minute later, Thompson stripped Booker as he rose for a step-back 3-pointer, the kind of stellar defensive play that fuels Thompson’s conviction. The jawing between the two began then. What usually comes next is the flame thrower. But Thompson, curling off a screen, missed the 22-footer the next time he got his hands on the ball. His outside shot was still cold but his mood was piping hot. He was ejected about a minute later, at the 6:31 mark.
Klay Thompson was ejected from the game after exchanging words with Devin Booker ?
It’s Thompson’s first career ejection.
— The Athletic NBA (@TheAthleticNBA) October 26, 2022
The Warriors’ deficit was six just at the time. The Suns ran off an 11-0 run, building a double-digit cushion the Warriors couldn’t whittle down, and the game was over. This is fine by the defending champions. If four titles and six NBA Finals appearances in eight years have taught them anything, it’s that the Larry O’Brien Trophy isn’t won in October. They weren’t sweating this loss at Phoenix. Getting trounced, hearing the Suns chirping, did nothing to temper Golden State’s confidence. The Warriors are convinced they will eventually get to where they need to be, just like last season. In part because they are convinced Thompson will get to where he needs to be.
He just isn’t there yet. And as long as he’s not there, it leaves room for wondering and worrying about whether he will get there. He is, after all, 32 years old with two serious injuries robbing him of valuable prime years. Doubt would be normal. It takes a reservoir of confidence and defiance to ward off something so natural, to believe enough to expect.
“I have 100 percent, unconditional confidence in him,” Curry said. “But to get there, nobody can really understand what he’s been through, even on top of a championship situation. All of the mental hurdles you have to continue to work on. You respect it because, again, none of us can imagine what those two years looked like. Just need to get him in the right atmosphere for a consistent amount of time and that stuff usually comes out. Because he’s a winner. So, that’s my confidence from start to finish with him. No difference this year.”
If tribulation produces patience, it would stand to reason that this part would be easier for Thompson. Returning from a torn ACL followed by a torn Achilles sounds grueling enough to make this current anguish seem bearable. But patience is virtuous because it is not so easily mastered.
Sometimes, he said during an interview before the season, he would get so mad inside.
“I want to apologize to anyone who was around me in those 24 months,” Thompson said during the preseason interview. “Because I was an angry person for a while. I was mad at the world. I had a quick fuse about little stuff and I was so angry. I didn’t know how to channel it.”
He learned to cut Klay Thompson some slack. He reminded himself what he’d just gone through, and overcome, was real. He affirmed within how returning after 941 days away from his passion was on its own an incredible feat, and he earned grace as he grinds back towards the All-Star he is certain still lives inside him.
Such will require more fortitude. More patience. More faith. Imagine summoning all the mental toughness necessary to clear 941 hurdles, only to end up needing more mental toughness. Because the hurdles still keep coming. It sounds infuriating. Thompson’s strategy is to counter the frustration with appreciation and trust. The boating helps him find those sweet mental spots of gratitude. The water conjures it.
Thompson also learned a technique from the book “The Untethered Soul” for those times he finds himself off-center. He takes a deep breath and, in his mind, tells himself the same simple word, five times.
“Whatever bad thoughts and feelings I’m having,” Thompson explained, “it’ll distract me from that and kind of re-center me and allow me to take it all in and be present with the moment. Coming back from injury, you cannot second-guess yourself. You have to believe you are who you’ve always been.”
Thompson said he is also on social media far less, swapping the smartphone for books more often. He spent a lot of time on social media during the two years he was out. And perhaps too much time listening to people’s commentary on his game.
He heard all the talking. About the decline of his defense during the early part of his return. About the lower efficiency of his 3-point shooting. Oh, and he can’t stand when people ask him if he’ll return to the old Klay. It’s irritating. There is no Old Clay. There is no New Clay. There is only Klay. The one he and his team know intimately. The one whom some others seem to have forgotten. His essence has not changed. His talent, his love for the big moments, his maniacal obsession with winning, has not been altered by his injuries. He is who he’s always been. He has to believe that. That’s what he’s determined to show you. Show us in the media. Show Booker, and any other player with the nerve. Show everybody.
“Klay cares so much about the game, about his impact on our team,” Kerr said after the loss. “He wants it so badly, and he’s trying to force everything right now. He’s just trying too hard, but he’s done that many times even before the injuries.”
Kerr said he plans to remind Thompson that slow shooting starts are not uncommon for him, and he always finds his way. In 2016-17, he started the year 3-for-28 from behind the arc. He finished the year at 41.4 percent from 3. In 2018-19, he started the year 5-for-36 from 3. Then he made 14 of 24 in Chicago, setting the regular-season record for 3s in a game and birthing a headband Clay. Last season, he was 24-for-73 over his first 10 games — 32.9 percent and well below his standard. While he finished at a career-low 38.5 percent during the regular season, he made 77 threes in the playoffs, his second-most in a single postseason.
So far this season, he’s 8-for-28 from deep. He can play defense and make nifty passes and do all the little things. But Thompson is a shooter. It’s who he is. So he is never fully himself until that part is on par with his expectations.
He thought the title ended his journey back. He presumed the struggle washed off in the Moët shower in Boston last June. It wasn’t. Not completely. So he remains in the crucible, leaning on his storied resolve. He reminds himself that he played well last postseason. Even when his shot wasn’t falling, his defense increasingly improved.
“I learned that it takes a lot to knock me down,” Thompson said. “Whether it’s the injuries, the shooting slumps, the diminished athleticism. I’m still gonna get out there and I’m still gonna make an impact on a championship-level team. So I’m very proud of myself for what I accomplished. But I still really want more. I still want to be great. And I don’t want to use my past injury experiences as a crutch into where I need to go. I might not get from point A to point B as fast as I once did. But, shoot, I can still make shots and get stops like the best of them.”
He put his trust in Rick Celebrini, the Warriors’ director of sports medicine and performance, before. He banked on his work ethic and stubbornness before. He got through the dark nights, nagging doubts and shooting slumps before. He will get through this. He’s sure of it.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard.
Until he gets back there, until he’s shooting it like one of the all-time greats and defending at a high level, until he’s snatching hope from opponents in the playoffs and saving the Warriors from despair, until he’s again creating epic moments, he’ ll have to find more patience and leave the confidence of past glory. And when people start talking like he isn’t Klay Thompson anymore, he’s fully ready to remind them of his bedazzled hand.
“Four rings. He repeated it over and over.”
(Photo: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)