2017 NBA Finals: Warriors vs. Cavaliers

'Splash Brother' Klay Thompson can win games with his defense

Thompson trails only Curry, LeBron, Green and Love in playoff plus-minus

OAKLAND, Calif. — This is the postseason, this is the series, right now, that could change a flawed perception for good, a Finals that presents Klay Thompson with a massive challenge and an opportunity just as big.

Warriors-Cavaliers, Round 3, Game 1, Thursday night, Oracle Arena, (Cavaliers vs. Warriors, 9 ET on ABC) and only Kyrie Irving, LeBron James and probably Kevin Love among the Cleveland arsenal staring back. Other defenders get a blindfold, cigarette and last meal.

Thompson gets a chance.

He has forever been known primarily as a long-range scorer, a Splash Brother with backcourt relative Stephen Curry, or at least known that way among fans. People within the NBA, and certainly within the organization, have understood almost from his arrival as the No. 11 pick in 2011 that Thompson can win games with his defense. It’s a Warriors thing as a whole, the way people still babble about Golden State needing to outshoot opponents to win, no matter how many years in a row the Dubs finish among the leaders in defense, but especially for Thompson as one of the best guards in the league on that side of the ball as well.

These playoffs have been the reminder, complete with statistical evidence: Thompson is shooting just 38.3 percent the first 12 games, all Golden State wins, is at 36.4 percent behind the arc, has been getting a lot of questions about the slump that has dogged him through three series… and is a major contributor to the best postseason start in league history.

He shot 32.7 percent the last round. And helped extinguish what little flicker of hope remained for San Antonio by playing the lead role in chasing Patty Mills into containment while seven inches taller and 30 pounds heavier.

Draymond Green has one more 3-pointer in 13 fewer attempts in the postseason, Kevin Durant trails Thompson by four behind the arc despite 18 fewer tries and yet Thompson is fifth in playoff plus-minus, behind only Curry, James, Green and Love. A portion, and perhaps even a good portion, of that can be attributed to playing the majority of his minutes with Green, who pulls along all the Warriors defensively. But Thompson is also third in defensive rating in the playoffs, with Green first and Houston’s Nene second.

“He plays great on the ball,” said Ron Adams, the Golden State assistant coach who handles a lot of the defense. “He’s rugged. He can essentially guard four positions and five if he has to. He does not get enough credit for his defense. We take it for granted because he’s a pretty steady Eddie. He’s rebounded the ball well in the playoffs, which is one thing I personally think he can do a lot better. He can lead the league in that category at his position. I think all the coaches do, but I try to remind him of all the good things he’s doing because at times he gets down because the shot isn’t going in. This time of the year, it’s about every little thing you can do to help your team win, and he does many, many things to help us win.”

Now comes the chance to show it on the biggest stage. Based on previous meetings between the Warriors and Cavaliers, Thompson, at 6-7, will spend a lot of time defending 6-3 Irving. Thompson, at 215 pounds, will have his turns running the gauntlet of trying to check small forward (insert laugh track here) James, as if 6-8 and 250 pounds is small anything. Thompson will undoubtedly get switched on power forward Love, his baseball teammate from their time as kids in Lake Oswego, Ore. Thompson has been on shooting guard J.R. Smith before.

Continue to miss shots and fail to contain his man in the Cleveland offense, and Thompson will spend a long time trying to live down the 2017 playoffs. Uncommonly struggle from the field but continue to defend at the level of the Western Conference portion of the playoffs, and Thompson reaches a new level of recognition when the work comes against Irving and James, especially if it helps lead to a Golden State title.

“I think I’ve been playing at a high level, but I think I can better this series,” Thompson said Wednesday, after the Warriors went through their final practice before the quest for vindication begins Thursday. “It’s a great challenge, obviously, guarding Kyrie Irving, LeBron, the other players. But those two guys in particular because they’re so good one-on-one. This is probably going to be my biggest challenge and I’m ready for it.”

That this is the postseason, and the series, to make people realize he is more than a shooter “doesn’t matter to me. If I come away with the ring, that’s all I care about. It is nice to get recognition from your peers. But at the end of the day you just want to play your hardest and you can live with it.”

So said the man at 38.3 percent from the field and knowing what comes next.

An opportunity.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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