CLEVELAND — Kevin Durant will get the attention, because he should get the attention, because my God, did you see that shot? And Stephen Curry will get the attention, because he should get the attention, because he’s averaging damn near a triple-double in the 2017 NBA Finals while shooting 48.4 percent from 3-point land on 10 attempts a game. And Draymond Green will get the attention, because … well, “should” or “shouldn’t” doesn’t really enter into it. Draymond’s just going to get the attention.
If you can, though — if you’ve got a bit to spare — try to set some attention aside for Klay Thompson. Lord knows the man deserves it after the work he’s turned in to help get his Golden State Warriors within one win of immortality.
“What Klay Thompson has done defensively for the first three games of this series, it goes unnoticed,” said Warriors sixth man Andre Iguodala. “He shoots the ball so well that you forget about his defensive presence on the ball. That’s growth, as well. Early on [in the Finals], the shots weren’t falling for him, but he still made a huge impact on the game.”
After struggling offensively for most of this postseason, Thompson’s shot started falling in Game 2, when he went 8 for 12 from the field and 4 for 7 from 3 en route to 22 points. That was just a prelude to a bigger offensive breakthrough for the 27-year-old, who came out guns blazing in Game 3 — 16 points in the first quarter, 5 for 7 from the floor, 4 for 5 from deep — on his way to a postseason-high 30 points.
“Klay, offensively, we’re never worried about him,” Curry said during his postgame news conference. “He’s always aggressive. We know he’s a threat whether he’s making or missing shots, just by his presence on the floor. But tonight he was smart about getting to the right spots, finding his looks, being confident, knocking them down early, being aggressive. Definitely gave us a boost.”
“I was getting great looks, I was being patient, and whenever you make your first couple, you feel good,” Thompson said. “And, to me, I got a couple looks early at the basket, got a couple open threes, and that always helps.”
What makes Thompson special, though — in this particular performance, and in general as an All-NBA-caliber two-way two-guard — is that getting on track offensively doesn’t diminish his desire to make his presence felt on the other end.
“Klay Thompson played 40 minutes with incredible defense,” said Golden State veteran Shaun Livingston. “People are going to look at the stats. I feel good for him because the ball is going in the hole for him. Thirty points tonight and he got his shot going.”
Defense was Thompson’s calling card through the first two games of this series, eliciting rave reviews as he limited Cavaliers star Kyrie Irving to 21.5 points a night on 40 percent shooting. Even so, Thompson entered Game 3 with modest goals in his matchup with Irving.
“Just got to throw different bodies at him, and if he scores, got to tip the cap,” Thompson said during the Warriors’ Wednesday afternoon shootaround. “I mean, he’s a great player, he’s gonna get his buckets. You just got to try to keep it under, hopefully, 30.”
Thompson and his teammates couldn’t manage that on Wednesday. Just as he did in last year’s Finals, Irving broke free in Game 3, exploding for 38 points on 16-for-29 shooting to give LeBron James the support he needed to keep the Cleveland Cavaliers in the fight against the Warriors far longer than they’d managed in Games 1 or 2.
It was a brilliant display of shot-making authored by one of the NBA’s premier offensive artists, full of dazzling moves to create just enough space for Irving to get the shot away, often just over or around Thompson’s outstretched arm.
“I saw some space, started attacking early, getting in transition, off their misses,” Irving said after the game. “I got a few rebounds, got to push in transition, got to the free-throw line a little bit, just stayed aggressive the whole entire game. When they’re doing a great job of loading up on you, every iso, every time you come off pick-and-roll, you got to find other ways to still be effective.”
But every complicated sequence of moves to get to the bucket came while wearing the 6-foot-7 Thompson the whole while. Nothing came easy. Nothing was conceded.
“Over the course of 44 minutes, you know [Irving’s] going to make tough shots,” Curry said after the game. “It’s just a matter of, can you stick to it every possession? Just trying to make him work. And Klay didn’t hang his head when Kyrie was going off. He stuck with it, and when it mattered most down the stretch, I think all that pressure kind of showed itself.”
After Durant drilled a cold-blooded pull-up 3-pointer to give the Warriors a one-point lead with 45 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Irving had the ball in his hands on the right wing, and Thompson planted between him and the rim. On Christmas Day, under similar circumstances, Kyrie won the battle.
On Wednesday night, Klay won the war.
Thompson tracked Irving high above the 3-point arc and stayed with every jitter and juke, pressing up on him and forcing him to take a step-back jumper — or, at least, to take a much bigger step back than he might have wanted to get separation — over a perfect contest. The fading jumper caromed softly off the front of the rim and into the hands of Curry.
“[I was] trying to make him get off the 3-point line and make him finish over the top of me, either at the rim or mid-range,” Thompson recalled after the game. “I think I play with great length, and Kyrie’s been hot all night, and I think that I just did a good job of not falling for any of his moves, because he’s real shifty, and just stayed in front of him. Luckily, he missed the shot.”
Irving’s front-rimmed stepback was one of eight shots (including five 3-pointers) that the Cavs missed in the final 3:08 of the fourth quarter, as the Warriors locked in on both ends of the floor to turn a six-point deficit into a five-point win. Thompson’s defense was part of that — he also stayed with Irving on every step of a drive for a running layup that rimmed in and out with just under two minutes to go — but that pivotal scoreless stretch also saw capable shooters like James, Kevin Love, Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith come up empty on quality looks that could’ve stemmed the Warriors’ rising tide.
“We could have got better [shots] down the stretch,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said after the game. “Did a good job of attacking the paint all night, and then they don’t have a lot of shot-blockers in the game, they went small. So [we took] shots that our guys are capable of making, but we should have been more aggressive getting to the paint.”
Two sets of free throws and one very timely Iguodala block of a LeBron James 3-point try later, the Warriors had sealed a 118-113 victory that gave them a commanding 3-0 edge in the best-of-seven NBA Finals. Golden State now stands one win away from both its second NBA championship in three years and becoming the first team in NBA history to go undefeated in the postseason, finishing a perfect 16-0 in the playoffs.
“It’s definitely tough. It hurts,” Irving said. “Did some great things tonight. Came down to the stretch, and they made some big-time plays. K.D. comes down, hits a big three, puts them up one. Iso on the wing.
“I’ll probably be replaying that play for a while.”
He won’t be the only one — especially if Golden State, as is widely expected, goes on to close this series out.
“A lot’s been said about his defense and how important it is, and you can’t understate it,” Curry said. “It’s just: He understands how valuable he is for us on that end of the floor.”
“The defense at the end — that’s championship basketball,” Livingston said.
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