The Warriors will be looking to close out the Western Conference Finals on Wednesday against the Rockets. Thanks to some sublime performances by Stephen Curry and their superior depth, Golden State has mostly cruised to a commanding lead despite one of its key players, Klay Thompson performing below expectations.
Thompson hasn’t been a disaster. Far from it. Most teams would love to have a wing scoring almost 20 points per game on 45 percent shooting for the postseason. The problem is Thompson was much more efficient in general in the regular season and has gotten worse as the playoffs have progressed.
He had his highest scoring game of the conference finals in the Warriors’ Monday night loss, but it still took him 21 shots to get 24 points. He didn’t get to the line and he turned the ball over four times. What turned Thompson into an All-Star was his improved ability to draw free throws and handle a bigger offensive role with sustained efficiency and without a huge spike in turnovers. It didn’t translate into the playoffs, where he has increasingly looked like the player he was a year ago.
Thompson’s effective field goal percentage (a metric that accounts for the extra point players get from three-pointers) is 51.6 percent in the semifinals and finals, a low number that pales in comparison to the excellent 55.7 he averaged during the regular season. He’s getting to the line only slightly less frequently and shooting only slightly worse but has been turning the ball over more. Essentially, he’s scoring less efficiently while not doing anything else on offense at a good enough rate to offset that drop off.
He has even struggled greatly defensively, long considered one of his strengths. James Harden has roasted Thompson often and forced Steve Kerr to go with Harrison Barnes on The Beard at times. In the postseason, Klay hasn’t been able to crack the 40th percentile as a defender in isolations or guarding the pick-and-roll ball handler, per Synergy. That’s a death sentence against Harden.
As a result of all these factors, the Warriors have actually been eight points better per 100 possessions on average against the Grizzlies and Rockets with Thompson off the floor than on, per NBA.com. Garbage time affected the numbers of all starters, but Thompson’s differential remains the highest.
Once again, the Warriors have been able to survive Thompson’s slump so far and could advance to the Finals with a win at home in Game 5. Once they get there, however, they’ll need more from their second All-Star. If Kyrie Irving is healthy, the Cavaliers will have the firepower to match Golden State’s, a roster well-suited to go small and oh, yeah, the best player in the league on their side.
What has to worry Thompson is Cleveland has done a very good job containing wings. Avery Bradley shot 38 percent from the field in Round 1, Jimmy Butler 41 percent in the conference semifinals and Kyle Korver 44 percent but “only” 40 percent from outside in the conference finals. The Cavaliers will throw Iman Shumpert and, if needed, LeBron James at Thompson. Unless he starts playing like he did earlier in the season, his struggles could not only continue but be exacerbated.
The Warriors are deep on the wing with Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa and Andre Iguodala coming off the bench, but none of those guys can come close to matching the impact Thompson can have on a game when he’s cooking. And while they don’t have three quality reserves at that position, Cleveland has the explosive J.R. Smith coming in when one of its wings rest, which should help them reduce the bench edge Golden State has in theory.
Of course, this is all a bit premature. The Warriors will likely advance but haven’t yet. Thompson will have at least one more game to get back on track before having to face Cleveland. The Rockets have proved their resiliency during this postseason already, so he might even need to for his team to put them away. The talent is obviously there and if Thompson has showed anything it’s that he can heat quickly:
Thompson underperforming is the only dark spot on an otherwise sterling postseason for the Warriors. If it continues to happen, that’s arguably the only thing that could derail their championship hopes. If he regains his usual level, however, it’s hard to see anyone beating Golden State.