Klay Thompson and the Warriors return to the Finals after a vintage performance against the Mavs

SAN FRANCISCO — With just over three minutes remaining in the Western Conference Finals, Klay Thompson had a pull-up in the lane denied by Spencer Dinwiddie. No worries – Thompson got the rebound and immediately found himself at the elbow, where he got up for two more. No dice – he threw it in the air. Kevon Looney collected the rebound – one of his 18 – as Thompson repositioned himself in the right corner. The ball found its way back to Klay, and this time he sank a three, his eighth of the game. And the Mavs comeback that had even the slightest glimmer of hope was finally extinguished. The Warriors took a 15-point lead and surrendered their ticket to the NBA Finals.

This Klay streak, and possibly his entire season, is a microcosm of this Golden State team. A little damaged and worse for wear. Not as straight shot. Fallible. But when the stakes are highest, a team that clearly still has talent at Championship level.

The Warriors return to the Finals for the sixth time in eight years, a feat last accomplished by Jordan’s Bulls. It’s not the scariest version of this team we’ve ever seen. He’s not a 73-win behemoth. It wasn’t the destroyer Kevin Durant who ruined the NBA. It’s an older, grittier band. Yet it’s always the one who can go along with any upstart who dares to challenge them. In that playoff series alone, the Dubs left a two-time MVP in Nikola Jokić and two rising stars in Ja Morant and Luka Dončić in their wake. It’s not just an old man who still has it. It’s an old team.

On Thursday, Thompson was the poetic hero. His return to the Finals reflected what the Warriors have been through in their three years since last playing in the Championship. Unfortunate injuries. A tough comeback as the rest of the conference recharges. Questions about what they are still capable of in a post-Durant world. As Thompson said himself, this is a band that doesn’t have as much leeway as they once did, forced to be more meticulous due to their current situation.

“It’s so hard to get to the finals,” Steve Kerr said after the game. “An NBA season is such a marathon, going 82, going through three rounds of the playoffs, beating the best teams in the league to get there, it’s frankly exhausting. It’s stressful, emotional, physically tiring, all of it.

“For our team, our guys, especially the core group, Dray and Steph, Klay, Loon [Kevon Looney]Andrew [Iguodala], to be part of it six times in eight years, I don’t even know what to say. It just takes a tremendous amount of skill, determination, and hard work.

Thompson embodied this hard work and determination in many ways. He struggled for much of the Western Finals. In games 1 through 4, he made seven combined threes. In Game 5, he poured eight, connecting on a higher percentage of three (50%) than two (44.4%). He finished with a game-high 32 points, adding another chapter to his closing tome of heroism.

The road back to the final is particularly pleasant for Thompson. He could only watch the previous two seasons from afar as the Warriors fell behind the rest of the league. A torn ACL and torn Achilles in back-to-back summers made an arduous path to the field. Nights like Thursday are the reason players spend countless hours in the gym with no one watching. So when the lights are at their brightest, they can still deliver as they once were famous.

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“I dreamed about it every day,” Thompson said after the game, adding, “My thoughts are with the operating table, my appreciation for having moved my body again. I thought of those days when I couldn’t run or jump. I thought about how lucky we are to do what we do. It’s inspiring for me to keep going.

“I’m happy for everyone, and I could go down the list. Each player has a unique path and story. I’m happy for all of them,” Kerr said after the game. “But, it’s hard not to be super excited for Klay considering what he’s been through.”

“Even if he was out, it didn’t change who he was,” said Jordan Poole, whom Klay told in Game 3 of his rookie season that he would one day play in the Finals. “He came back stronger mentally. When he came back, he came back as a vet. I’m extremely happy for him, his perseverance, his mental strength, it’s crazy.”

“We’ve seen the dark days, we’ve seen the process,” Draymond Green said. “To see him live this moment, it’s special… It comes from wrestling, and it’s a beautiful thing.”

A year ago at this time, Thompson had just started running and jogging. His rehab was not always fun. He got tired of doing a thousand calf raises a day. The training staff kept imploring him to endure, for the work would pay off one day. It was these difficult times that made Thursday particularly poignant.

Says Thompson, “The low times make the high times so much sweeter, that’s what I’ve learned.”

The sweetest moment is always up for grabs, of course. Golden State is four wins away from its ultimate goal. As for what a title would mean for this band? Green offered a threat more than an answer.

“Don’t let us win a fucking championship.”

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