Houston -- Question for the Rockets’ defense: Who do you leave open?
Because at various points in this Western Finals, a choice must be made against the Warriors. It’s necessary to give extra attention to Kevin Durant, who’s only one of the top three or four scorers on the planet. And look here, Steph Curry is healthy and feeling frisky again, so the two-time MVP and historically-great 3-point shooter must be given the proper respect as well.
That leaves Klay Thompson?
As the Rockets prepare for a must-have Game 2 (9 ET on TNT) on Wednesday, this is the most likely option, to man-up Thompson without help, or even stray from Thompson at times when the Warriors spread the floor and force you to choose door No. 1, 2 or 3. Usually this means Thompson is the beneficiary, the reward for playing next to two of the few shooters who are more dangerous than he is, two who happen to be his teammates.
That’s why the Warriors are a tough check and once again favorites to sip champagne in June. On almost any other team, Thompson would see multiple bodies flying in his direction on switches and traps. Not this one. And not now, even though the Rockets are down 1-0 in the series and rightly feel a little desperate.
Thompson had plenty of room and freedom in Game 1 for his 28-point performance and exploited those goodies by dropping jumpers and sneaking behind the defense for back-door cuts and layups. That’s the thing: Thompson is sometimes ignored or forgotten or not paid the same amount of defensive respect, in spite of bringing one of the smoothest and lethal jump shots of the last few decades.
It’s an embarrassment of riches that plays heavily in Golden State’s favor and gives headaches to defenses. This is why Durant signed up for this, to either take advantage of lighter defense played on him or give that advantage to Curry and Thompson, but mostly Thompson if only because the other team must choose somebody.
Of course, the Rockets know what they’re risking by gambling their cash on the third wheel.
A question Tuesday to James Harden: “What do you take away from Klay Thompson?”
Harden: “That he can shoot the ball.”
Thompson isn’t just a rhythm shooter, although that’s clearly when he’s at his most effective. His ability to bounce off screens and square up to the basket after catching the ball is sharp; Thompson also brings a quick release and therefore is tough to guard in that sequence.
Yet, Thompson hurt the Rockets three times on back-door plays and drives to the rim after pump fakes. Other shooters are just that, players who run to the corner and stand and wait for a pass (Trevor Ariza in this series, for example). Thompson can do that, yet he also moves and so the defense can’t relax.
He can go chilly, like all shooters, but those have been rare lately. In 11 postseason games so far, only two can be described as outright clunkers (4-for-16 vs. the Spurs, 4-for-20 vs. the Pelicans). As a third option, Thompson is averaging just under 22 points on 46 percent shooting (38 from deep).
Would Thompson be this highly regarded if he played on a lesser team that couldn’t provide teammates that drew defensive attention from him? That’s tough to answer, because circumstances could vary. And it doesn’t appear to be a situation that Thompson is too curious about.
Reportedly, he has already begun to explore contract extension talks with the Warriors even though his current deal doesn’t expire until 2019. That means Thompson is at least opening the door to accepting less money to stay with the Warriors, ride out an era that could produce more rings and benefit from defenses paying more attention to Durant and Curry.
During an interview postgame Monday with TNT, Thompson said, regarding the lack-of-respect perception: “I don’t care. I get paid handsomely, I play in a great place in the Bay Area, and we compete for championships year in and year out. And that’s hard to do. A lot of guys never get that opportunity. So I’m grateful just to be part of this team. We’ve got such a good thing going.”
Does that sound like someone who wants or need a change of scenery?
Thompson did something uncharacteristic for him in Game 1. After drilling a wide-open 3-pointer, he turned to the crowd and raised three fingers and blew a kiss. Maybe a little bit of Draymond Green rubbed off on Thompson. Or maybe Thompson was just feeling it.
“I don’t think they will,” he said. “I think they’re going to make adjustments. You can’t relax in the playoffs because the next game comes at you fast. Anyway, we haven’t done anything yet. There’s still more work to be done. We know what we’re up against.”
The Warriors can afford to stay true to themselves in Game 2. Meanwhile, the adjustments are all with the Rockets. Do they dare go solo against Durant, who scored 37 points? Same with Curry, who’s rounding into form?
And do they pay more respect to Thompson, or take their chances again? There are no easy answers, only easy baskets for the Warriors if you don’t choose wisely.
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