BROOKLYN – Klay Thompson didn’t let his smile fade. Can he find solace in seeing the younger wings close out a win against the Brooklyn Nets? Most definitely. Is he frustrated that he didn’t close the Warriors’ win? Of course, he said.
“Yeah, you kidding me? To go from one of the best players …” Thompson’s voice trailed off. “It’s hard for anybody, I’ll be honest with you. It’s very hard … Those guys played great, Gui (Santos), (Brandin Podziemski), Jonathan (Kuminga). End of the day, winning cures all.”
Thompson kept smiling.
Monday wasn’t the first time the former Washington State star sat out to close a game this year. He was benched late for Podziemski in Memphis last week, but that game was trending toward a comfortable win. In November, he was benched for the first time in his career for crunch time in an eventual gutting loss to the Phoenix Suns; he was visibly frustrated on the bench and after the game as he spoke to reporters at his locker.
But this night in Brooklyn, Santos, who started the year in the G League and hasn’t played many other meaningful minutes this year, was too impactful to sub out. With Andrew Wiggins out injured, Santos gave the closing lineup of Steph Curry and Draymond Green flanked by young players Kuminga and Podziemski the athleticism and spark on the wings it desperately needed. He fought for loose balls, cut to the rim and wrangled or tipped rebounds – six, to be exact – in 17 minutes.
He had nine points and the Warriors outscored the Nets by 13 points when Santos was on the floor, a team best.
“Everybody here always says be ready for when you have the opportunity to be on the court and play,” Santos said. “So when I saw I had a couple minutes on the court, I said I had to bring energy to the team, especially defensively.”
Earlier this year, Warriors coach Steve Kerr might have hesitated to play a youngin’ over a veteran, and in a few instances, the choice came back to bite – putting Moses Moody’s hot hand on ice against Sacramento in November, for example. This is a team that built its dynasty leaning on budding superstars and beating down teams with a tried-and-true formula the league couldn’t crack.
Now, sitting 22-25 and out of the play-in tournament midway through the year, Kerr has had to wade into the unfamiliar. That’s made for some uncomfortable moments, especially for Thompson. Lately, his shots are coming up short and it appears the wear-and-tear of the season on his two surgically repaired legs is taking its toll on the soon-to-be 34-year-old.
He had eight points, shooting 4 for 9 from the field and 0 for 3 from 3. He couldn’t close. But the Klay-to-close decision seems volatile given Thompson’s competitive desire to be on the floor when it matters most, as he always did before his injuries.
“He’s fine,” Kerr said of Thompson. “This is a season where he’s had a lot of ups and downs and it’s not easy for a guy who has been so good and a Hall of Fame player to deal with the injuries, it’s never easy for any player getting older. But he’s mentally tough and plays through everything.
“There’s a spotlight on him because of how great he is, because of the career he had. I don’t think that should be the story tonight, the story should be that we won a game on the road against a team that’s been playing well and we had multiple guys step up.”
Due respect to Kerr’s wishes, the visual of Thompson benched late is still foreign and jarring. For his cold-blooded approach, microwave shooting flurries and clutch Game 6 moments, he will go down in history as one of the game’s best and most clutch shooters. And now he must find an emotional balance to keep the edge that got him here while accepting that those legs he rode here aren’t Teflon anymore.
But Kerr’s pleas to tilt the spotlight off Thompson seem to resonate with the rest of the team, too. As Thompson answered questions at his locker Monday night, he was interrupted by a teammate, Draymond Green, who was singing from his own locker loud enough to drown out reporters. Eventually he stuck his head in the media scrum in the locker room.
“What they asking you about, that you ain’t play to finish the game?” Green said. “Well, I got benched in Game 5 of The Finals (in 2022) – who … cares.”
Green was messing around, but again put the meaning of this season into perspective. The dynasty’s mortality is clearer by each game, but moments like this show its core players aren’t afraid to acknowledge that its final years won’t look like those brilliant first ones. Kerr, Green, Thompson and Curry all know they’ll have to make little sacrifices like this to keep going.
“I know he wants to shoot the ball better,” Curry said. “I know he wants to be out there on the floor. He’s a champion. He is a guy that’s been as much a part of all of our success as anybody. The challenge as we get deeper into our careers is the adjustments that we all have to make to try to continue to win at the highest level.”