SAN FRANCISCO — Steph Curry stood at center court facing the opposite basket. Arms folded. Stone-faced. OK, maybe a slight smirk.
His pose and glare didn’t have malicious intentions, but were instead directed toward fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson, who had just made a clutch 3-pointer with 12 seconds left, leading to an eventual 110-106 Golden State Warriors victory over the visiting Brooklyn Nets.
Curry beamed with pride and empathy, understanding how much it’s taken for his career-long teammate, who has been through so much, to get back to this point. But there was also a hint of another emotion on Curry’s face.
“It felt amazing. I missed that feeling. It felt absolutely amazing,” Thompson said of his clutch 3-pointer. “It’s been a feeling I haven’t had in a couple years, so anytime you make big shots or get stops down the stretch, it’s gonna do wonders for your confidence.”
It’s no secret that Curry has had a rough go of things recently, shooting 37 percent from the field and 31 percent from the 3-point line in the month of January — hardly befitting the greatest shooter who’s ever lived. Part of that, both he and Kerr have acknowledged, is due to the tremendous amount of defensive pressure he faces on every single possession.
What makes Curry so great is that he is the rare unselfish superstar who is willing to cede the glory for team success. It’s why the Warriors offense, despite Curry’s shooting struggles, has scored an elite 114 points per 100 possessions this season with him on the floor.
But in crunch time, it’s been a different story. Those already suffocating defenses reach frenzied levels in close games down the stretch, leaving Curry to rely on his teammates to come through. The Warriors have performed well in the clutch this season — defined as games within five points with five minutes remaining — with a plus-12.5 net rating, but that’s largely a product of their league-leading defense. They’ve only mustered 103.1 points per 100 possessions in clutch situations, which is 20th in the league according to NBA.com.
Curry’s shooting struggles have been exacerbated in those situations, making just under 30 percent of his field goals and 20 percent of his 3-pointers in 70 clutch minutes this season, per NBA.com. As productive as Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole and Otto Porter Jr. have been, the Warriors need a second player they can trust to take — and make — big shots to help Curry out.
Enter Thompson, no stranger to getting clutch buckets in the most stressful and significant situations — just ask the Thunder, Rockets, Cavs or any other playoff opponent Golden State has demoralized over the past decade.
Wiggins, Poole and Porter were phenomenal for three quarters in Saturday’s win over the Nets, combining for 57 points, but it was Thompson who rose to the occasion in the fourth. Never mind that he entered the final frame shooting 2 for 11 from the field and 1 for 7 from 3-point range. Watching him confidently fire up the ball in the final minutes, you would have thought he was having another one of his unconscious Klay 50-point nights.
After returning for his final stint with five minutes left in the game, Thompson hit two jumpers, that dagger 3-pointer from the left wing, and the final two free throws that put the game out of reach. Nine of his 16 points came in the fourth quarter, and desire to seize the moment was tangible. Curry and the rest of the Warriors were — and will continue to be — happy to oblige.
“It was a struggle for much of the night, but that’s kind of who Klay is in terms of hitting big shots, big free throws,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the win. “That’s the kind of confidence he plays with. Even on a night when things aren’t going well, he’s got the ability to step up and make the shot of the game.”
All season we’ve focused on how a healthy Thompson can change the Warriors, and therefore the championship landscape of the NBA. He’s slowly making his way back to the two-way superstar that thrived before consecutive devastating injuries, but Saturday night gave us a glimpse of exactly why he’s so crucial to Golden State’s title hopes. They’ve been successful all season in piecing together offense outside of Curry, but we don’t know how the role players and youngsters are going to react in playoff games with elimination on the line.
We know that Thompson will not be scared, and his track record in clutch moments is as pristine as any Warrior, maybe any player in the league. Even if he doesn’t end up making the shots, Thompson’s mere presence will lift the weight of the entire offense off of Curry’s shoulders down the stretch, making the Warriors even more dangerous.
“I think it’s important for Klay to feel those big moments,” Kerr said after the game. “It’s been two and a half years. It’s one thing to step into the regular season and play some minutes and get his legs underneath him. It’s another thing to have the ball in his hands with the game on the line. You could see it didn’t bother him one bit.”