The biggest game-changing event in the Warriors’ Game 1 double-overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs was probably the moment guard Klay Thompson fouled out.
What unfolded afterward was almost too tough to watch.
THOMPSON: “It was killing me to watch from the sidelines. I’ve got to be smarter than that. I play aggressive, but maybe limit to three or four fouls a night, just for the sake of our team because I need to be out there.”
But the Warriors weren’t missing Thompson’s to-die-for jumper. They were missing his defense. As soon as he came out, San Antonio guard Tony Parker took over the game.
Thompson has become Golden State’s defensive stopper. His ability to play on-ball defense keeps the Warriors from having to switch and double-team, a big bonus for Golden State’s scheme. He has been especially adept at defending smaller quicker point guards. He was effective slowing down Denver’s Ty Lawson. Monday against the Spurs, he gave Parker fits.
At the 3:57 mark of the fourth quarter, with the Warriors ahead by 16 points, Thompson picked up his sixth foul. At that point, Parker had played 33 minutes and had 12 points on 4-of-15 shooting.
As soon as Thompson left, Parker scored six points on 3-of-3 shooting with an assist during an 18-2 San Antonio run to close regulation.
MARK JACKSON: “When Klay Thompson left the ballgame, Tony Parker was able to create some separation. I thought Harrison did a very good job on him, but Klay did a spectacular job on him.”
And when you pitch in his offense, Thompson’s importance is multiplied. In Game 1, before point guard Stephen Curry went off in the third quarter, the Warriors’ rode Thompson on offense. He scored six points in less than two minutes against Parker, forcing the Spurs to make a defensive adjustment. That paved the way for Curry’s scoring outburst.
Still, who would have thought when the Warriors drafted him out of Washington State in 2011, his value to the team would be defense? Who would have thought he would be their stopper after he let Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari drive for an easy tying layup in the final seconds of a November game?
Known for his shooting ability, Thompson has learned to use his size and sneaky athleticism to become a good man-to-man defender. He is especially effective against smaller, speedy guards.
At 6-foot-7, 205 pounds, he has the ability to play off his man and prepare for the drive and still contest the jumper. He’s good at using his length to make him harder to drive around and he uses his size to play physically (which sometimes gets him in foul trouble).
THOMPSON: “I think I’ve got pretty quick feet, people don’t realize that. I have worked a lot harder on my defense since I’ve gotten to this level.”
His defensive skills give two advantages to the Warriors, both of which played out in Game 1. First, it relieves Curry, the catalyst of the Warriors’ offense, of the tougher defensive assignment. Second, it prevents the guards from breaking down the defense by drawing help defenders and double teams. Because the Warriors don’t have to help so much when Thompson is guarding Parker, the offense has fewer openings in the Warriors’ defense to exploit.
With no Thompson, Parker was able to penetrate, forcing the Warriors to help on defense. That created a domino effect that put the Warriors into scramble trying to cover the open man.
JACKSON: “Credit has to be given to my incredible staff and also to Klay for how hard he works and how much pride he takes in being a big time defender. I don’t think Klay gets enough credit for his defense. Now that being said, you can play the same defense and Tony Parker is good enough to have a great night. But overall, Klay is making him work.”