Klay Thompson is back.
And it didn’t take long for Thompson to prove he should be back to his All-Star self in no time.
The Golden State guard made his season debut Sunday in the Warriors' 96-82 victory against the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was Thompson’s first game since Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals – a span covering 941 days following a torn ACL and Achilles tendon.
"Very special moment," Thompson said. "I’ll never forget this night. I’ll never forget the reception Warriors fans gave us, especially myself. Gosh, it was fun. It was worth every single day of being away. All the conditioning days, it was worth every single moment. I’m so grateful to just compete again. It’s been a long time. I’m also proud of myself for just persevering. I’m not going to say it was equivalent to winning a championship, but man, it was pretty freaking close."
Thompson, who was in the starting lineup alongside longtime teammates Steph Curry and Draymond Green, had 17 points, including seven quick points at the start of the third quarter, on 7-for-18 shooting and 3-for-8 on 3-pointers in 20 minutes.
“Wasn’t shy was he? Not that we would ever expect Klay to be shy," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "I was amazed at his poise out there and his confidence after being out for so long. … A beautiful night.”
Of the 18 shots in 20 minutes, Curry said, "That is so Klay Thompson."
Thompson dropped in a runner in the paint with 11:20 left in the first quarter on the Warriors' first possession, but Golden State coach Steve Kerr said he didn't call the play for Thompson who missed his first three 3-point attempts and checked out with 7:37 remaining in the first quarter.
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But he started to find his game in his second stint. He drove to the rim for a one-handed dunk with 2:56 remaining in the second quarter. "It felt so good to throw that down. I did not expect that," he said.
Then made his first 3-pointer with 1:18 left in the half. He had explosiveness and his shot.
It might just take a few games – or more – before Thompson is back to All-Star Klay Thompson. But it’s clear Thompson is ready to play and it shouldn’t take long before he is back in game form.
"He got a lot of shots that I think he’ll make consistently that he didn’t make," Kerr said, "but he also made a bunch that were tough shots and some big ones, too. … The adrenaline and high from tonight will come down eventually, and he’s going to have to work his way through that over the next few games and continue to build up his endurance. The rhythm and timing will come but it’s not going to be smooth sailing. He understands that.”
While it was an important game for Thompson, the Warriors have larger long-term goals that include competing for a championship. How Thompson plays now is important, but not as important as how he is playing in April, May and perhaps June.
The Warriors are one of the best teams in the league at 30-9 – tied with Phoenix for first place in the Western Conference. With a healthy Thompson on a deep roster, the Warriors are capable of returning to the Finals for the first time since 2019.
Thompson, 32, tore the ACL in his left knee in Game 6 of the 2019 Finals and missed the 2019-20 season, and just before the start of 2020-21, he tore his right Achilles tendon, missing all of that season, too.
“Tonight is about all of showing our appreciation for what he’s had to go through individually and expressing our affection for him and I know our fans are going be to going crazy,” Kerr said before the game. “It’s going to be emotional. In a lot of ways, it’ll be a very difficult game just trying to lock in and focus while something much bigger than the outcome is actually happening, and that’s the challenge for the group is to try to focus amidst all this emotion.”
Warriors players wore Thompson’s No. 11 jersey into San Francisco’s Chase Center, and Thompson also received a standing ovation from Warriors fans when he was introduced as a starter. The Warriors also played a welcome back tribute video on the scoreboard.
There was much speculation about Thompson’s return date. Just before Christmas? On Christmas? Jan. 2? The seven-time All-Star started dropping hints six days ago, and on Saturday, Kerr told reporters it wasn’t his news reveal and instructed them to watch their phones for a social media post.
“IM SO EXCITED TO SEE YALL DUBNATION ! LETS GET IT,” Thompson posted Saturday on Instagram.
In a video shortly after posted on the Warriors’ Twitter feed, Thompson said, “I hate to use the phrase 'can't wait' because I love to be present in my life. But I cannot wait to play in front of our fans again. I really, really enjoy being a Warrior.”
Thompson wasn’t the only one looking forward to his much-awaited return.
“I have no doubt when Klay walks onto the floor for the first time, I will never forget that game,” Kerr told reporters Saturday. “It will stand out as one of the highlights of my entire basketball existence just because of who Klay is and how much he has meant to our franchise and to the Bay area and to me personally and to his teammates."
Returning from an Achilles injury isn’t easy and couple that with an ACL injury, Thompson went through grueling rehab to put himself in this position. Kobe Bryant struggled to return from his Achilles injury, but that was later in his career. Kevin Durant, Thompson’s former teammate in Golden State, came back from an Achilles injury (sustained in the 2019 Finals) and re-established himself as one of the game’s best players. Durant is an MVP candidate this season.
“We’re going to ease him into his role,” Kerr said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Warriors' Klay Thompson plays in first NBA game since 2019 Finals