Klay Thompson's Warriors return sends message to rest of NBA

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Klay's return to Warriors sends strong message to rest of NBA originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

SAN FRANCISCO -- The sellout crowd at Chase Center got what it wanted Sunday, the core of the Warriors’ golden-era teams intact, Klay Thompson returning to the starting lineup alongside Stephen Curry and Draymond Green.

The reunion lasted only seven seconds, perhaps to the relief of the NBA.

Seven seconds after tipoff against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Green committed a foul and immediately left the game with a calf injury sustained in pregame warmup. He was done for the evening.

The Warriors, however, were not. They spent the next 34 minutes delivering a 10-word message easily read by any team in the league: Klay is back. Draymond will be back soon. We’re ready.

With Draymond watching and cheering from the bench, the Warriors thoroughly outplayed a good, but young, Cleveland team over the first three quarters, building a 79-55 lead late in the third quarter. They squandered much of that over the next 14 minutes, but came away with a 96-82 victory in a game overshadowed by Thompson’s return.

They’re 30-9, the best record in the NBA, and here comes Klay.

“We have championship aspirations,” Curry said. “That’s where we want to be.”

The upcoming road trip, four games in six nights, is the toughest the Warriors see this season. It begins Tuesday in Memphis (28-14, fourth in the Western Conference), then moves to defending champion Milwaukee (26-16, fourth in the Eastern Conference) on Thursday before going to Chicago (26-11, first in the East) the next night. The expedition wraps Sunday in Minnesota (20-20, sixth in the West but getting healthy and on a four-game win streak).

The Warriors would have to consider a 2-2 split as digestible, with anything better being nothing short of tremendous.

What has to be encouraging for them, however, is how fluid Klay looked and how furiously he played. He submitted 17 points in 20 minutes, with no indication that he had missed 177 games and had been away from competition for 941 days.

Thompson’s dunk, over and between the futile defense of 7-foot Lauri Markkanen and 6-foot-8 Lamar Stevens, was the strongest proof that there is as much if not more bounce than ever and absolutely no fear.

“Yeah, the dunk was great to see, but did not surprise me,” coach Steve Kerr said. “We've seen that in the scrimmages. He's in great shape.”

Insofar as Thompson’s remarkable shooting is a huge reason why the Warriors signed him to a max contract one month after he sustained a torn left ACL in the 2019 NBA Finals, his classic moment came early in the second half.

He drained a fadeaway 14 seconds into the third quarter. A couple minutes later, he swished a midrange pull-up, followed 25 seconds later by a 3-pointer off the break, giving the Warriors a 12-point lead, their biggest up to that point. The barrage was enough for Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff to call a quick timeout.

“That shot felt really big and it's just great to see him and his movement and his flow,” Kerr said. “It's going to be interesting because the adrenaline and the 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 then continue to build up his endurance. It'll come.”

The mere appearance of Thompson put Curry back into his comfort zone. Slumping for most of the last month, he drilled his first four shots, all 3-pointers, and finished with a game-high 28 points.

Add the team’s depth, the upcoming 2021-22 debut of James Wiseman, sometime in the coming weeks, and Golden State, already ahead of schedule, has 60-win potential.

“With Klay back that’s one step towards becoming whole, a huge step,” Curry said. “And then Wise, eventually down the road. Then we kind of go from there.

“It's just good confidence to know you got to one milestone. For Klay, that’s just him getting back on the floor and playing basketball, and for the most part being there every night. Then we keep building, whatever the math, 51 games, 41 games, can't do math, to figure out who we are 1-through-15 ... and figure out what our rotations are looking like, and our chemistry is going to look like. We’re off to a good start on that.”

RELATED: Klay thrives in his return: 'I'll never forget this night'

Klay, for his part, is ready to get back what he loves. His minutes will be restricted for a few weeks and he won’t play both ends of that evil Milwaukee-Chicago back-to-back. His performance on Sunday was rich with promise.

“I’m very pleased with my efforts tonight,” Thompson said. “I missed some shots I always make, but I’m just happy that I can say that because I couldn’t say that the last two years. I can go back, re-watch the film and see how I’ll be better for Memphis.”

And beyond, as 42 more games follow the Grizzlies. Plenty of time to peak. As long as the core stays healthy, these Warriors should spend this season at or near the top of the NBA.

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