OKLAHOMA CITY — To the viewers at home, Klay Thompson’s first three-pointer of Game 6 may as well have been the stuff of magic. Stephen Curry was given the ball on the baseline under the Warriors’ basket roughly a minute into the game for a run-of-the-mill inbound sequence. The camera lingered. We watch Curry’s face as he eyes a straight-line development from the far side of the floor to the near, until poof: Thompson appears on the right wing with only Thunder center Steven Adams to contest his shot.
Andre Roberson, who had begun the play defending Thompson, switched out on an elbow screen from Draymond Green. That made Kevin Durant Thompson’s primary defender until he wasn’t; a second screen from Andrew Bogut stalled Durant out of the play, springing Adams into action as OKC’s last best option for contesting Thompson’s shot. A single dribble was all it took to evade it, though it was only by the speed of Thompson’s release that he was able to clear his shot before Adams recovered for a second swing.
So began the most ridiculous and productive night of three-point shooting in NBA playoff history. Thompson made just a single three-pointer in the first quarter. He would end the game with 11—many attempted over the best contests that the Thunder could reasonably manage. The pursuit of offense was, in itself, spectacular. It took all kinds of guile and effort for Thompson to create any separation from a defender like Roberson before he even received a pass. Yet Golden State could only survive if Thompson was actively seeking out offense; breakdowns would need to be earned, if they came at all.
“Me and Steph, we’ve got to hunt out our shot,” Thompson said. It’s not just the relentlessness of that hunt that makes Thompson one of the greatest shooters the league has ever seen. Quick thinking allows him to turn a play on its head in an instant with the smallest movements—like the way he effectively uses this Bogut screen (below) in two different directions. The first duck behind Bogut creates the separation from his defender, and the sidestep around Bogut exaggerates it:
Or on this possession, Thompson effectively runs his defender into Andre Iguodala’s to create a glitch in the Thunder’s coverage. He followed through to set a baseline screen for Shaun Livingston, which he slipped upward without making any real contact:
Livingston’s defender, Randy Foye, initially reads this action as a switch before then doubling back. Anthony Morrow seems to as well, though he hesitates when he sees Foye hesitate—the kind of poor exchange that builds toward a moment of panic.
“We definitely had some mishaps on our behalf,” Roberson said. “Miscommunications, leaving them wide open, transition, and switches here and there. They got open with a couple and got going.”
Defenses at this point are trained to keep with Thompson at all costs … and still they will occasionally turn their heads to watch the ball in accordance with career-long habits. Dion Waiters is only human; it’s natural that he would keep an eye on the play’s development to see if a help rotation might be needed, though in turning away from Thompson he inadvertently creates a different opportunity for the Warriors. Waiters quashes it almost immediately by chasing down Thompson and staying down on his initial shot fake. Thompson rises up anyway to eke out a jumper over Waiters’s outstretched hand:
Even a single step could prove costly. On this sequence, Roberson reacts to two elements of the play in progress: Andrew Bogut’s semi-open roll down the lane after screening for Curry, and Thompson’s move out of the left corner up and along the three-point arc. Everything is fine, save that Roberson takes a sort of rounded arc in his defensive movement in order to crowd the passing lane to Bogut before recovering back out to the perimeter. That route gives Thompson a window to launch a three even after Roberson manages to get a hand in his face:
“All Klay needs is a sliver of daylight,” Curry said. Give him that and he’ll beat the defense to the point of release with his no-frills shooting form. Give him an entire side of the floor and the nearest defender might as well stop by the scorer’s table to notch three points in Thompson’s ledger himself:
Ditto for those defenders who, even though they’re technically present, aren’t able to get a hand up to actually challenge Thompson’s shot:
By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, the Warriors were looking for Thompson on most every trip down the floor. Plays were allowed to develop fully so that he might shed his defender. The offense sometimes stood still, save for Thompson whirling around screens, stunting in this direction or that, and tucking himself behind the line with the cleanest perimeter footwork in the league:
“They believe in me,” Thompson said. “Steph told me before I went out in the fourth, ‘This is your time. You know, put on a show out there and have fun.’ I took those words to heart and I just tried to be aggressive.” In the three and a half minutes that Curry rested to start the quarter, Golden State scored six points (all on Thompson three-pointers) to Oklahoma City’s four. Even as the Thunder led by single digits, those difficult makes introduced an element of doubt.
“He understood the moment,” Curry said. “There were crucial situations, especially to start that fourth quarter, where a four-point game, six-point game, eight-point game—he hit a timely shot to keep us in it.”
If Thompson could swerve, tightrope the sideline, and connect on threes with no regard for degree of difficulty, no lead would be safe. If he could supplement that unbelievable shot-making by digging a few possessions out of the trash, the Thunder might well be cooked:
Thompson proved spectacular to the last, with the most incredible shots of his night coming after he had already tied the NBA record for made threes in a playoff game. Those first nine were an awesome display of what makes Thompson great: perfect mechanics building off smart navigation building off hard cuts. Then, with five minutes remaining in a game the Warriors trailed by seven, Thompson popped out of a ball screen for Iguodala to catch the ball at 28 feet. Thompson paused for a moment, his feet askew and set a bit too wide, to measure up the moment. Then he fired away:
“That was the only one all night that I thought, What are you doing?” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “But that’s the beauty of Steph and Klay. They kind of walk that fine line between lethal and crazy, and we have to live with some crazy shots, some crazy misses because they make more than their fair share.”
In retrospect, it seems crucial that Thompson’s screen for Iguodala (which was actually a double screen also set by Curry) triggered a switch. There’s an alternate scenario in which Thompson tries the same shot over the top of Roberson, whose length and athleticism had allowed him to block Thompson three times in Game 6. Maybe Thompson wouldn’t have taken the shot at all for that very reason. Yet the pair of high screens muddled OKC’s assignments in a way that landed Westbrook on Thompson—a change that may have been the difference in his aiming, attempting and making the game’s most ridiculous shot.
Thompson’s teammates saw in that three-pointer a characteristic confidence. While there may be times at which the All-Star marksman will be a bit more discerning, the willingness to take a long, difficult three was said to have less to do with Thompson’s shooting temperature and more to do with his general fearlessness.
“He could have missed eight before that,” Green said. “If he thought he was going to [make] it then, he would have shot it regardless.”
With that, Thompson fired off one final shot across the bow of the Thunder’s championship hopes, this time not shaving down a lead but building one. Golden State had led only intermittently in the first and third quarters … until this:
Minutes later, history was made and elimination averted. Thompson’s makes were some of the biggest shots of the postseason to date, and could come to play an enormous part in the eventual crowning of a Western Conference champion. Yet it was the takes themselves that were unforgettable—shots that even some of the best shooters in the league wouldn’t know how to attempt cleanly. What separates Thompson are the resources to find a way.