OAKLAND — After a James Harden air ball with 9:43 to go in Saturday’s Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, Klay Thompson leaked out in transition and took a long pass from Draymond Green.
The best jump-shooter in the NBA buried his seventh three of the night, raised both arms and punched the air with a right hook. It may as well have been the knockout blow to the Houston Rockets, as the Golden State Warriors — who had been down by as many as 17 — took a 12-point lead.
Thompson turned in his second virtuoso elimination-game performance in three seasons, scoring 12 of Golden State’s 33 points in the third quarter en route to a 35-point night. Thompson, who finished 13-for-23, gave the Warriors the energy they’d lacked for the last 10 quarters, helping to stave off elimination and sending the series back to Houston for a decisive Game 7 with a 115-86 Golden State win.
“I don’t know if I was born for it, but I’ve definitely worked my butt off to get to this point,”Thompson said. He paused, then reconsidered. “Well, I guess you could say I was born for it. Everything happens for a reason. That felt good.”
It wasn’t Thompson’s first time coming up with a series-altering performance in the playoffs. In Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals, with the Warriors facing elimination in Oklahoma City, Thompson scored 40 points and went 11-of-18 from three-point land to secure a win over the Thunder.
“I think Klay doesn’t worry too much about repercussions,” head coach Steve Kerr said. “He doesn’t worry about judgement and results. I think he just loves to play. He’s so comfortable in his own skin. I think he just wants to go out there and hoop. He doesn’t worry about much else. The pressure doesn’t seem to bother him much.”
The Warriors started the second stanza down by 17, but went on a 23-13 run, getting clean looks on pick-and-pop plays to Thompson, who went 4-for-6 to start the quarter.
With the Warriors down by 10 heading into the second half of another Western Conference Finals Game 6 on Saturday, Thompson had 14 points, but was a pedestrian 2-for-6 from three.
The Warriors traded turnovers with the Rockets to start the third quarter, but then Thompson buried two threes as part of an 11-0 run, capped by a 26-foot Curry three on the right wing with 9:24 left that gave Golden State its first lead since the opening moments of the game.
The Warriors — who averaged 30.1 points per third quarter on the season, with a league-best +4.8-point margin in the period — kept on rolling. Thompson hit a three from 24 feet from the right corner, and Curry drained a 29-foot step-back triple with 2:55 to go in the stanza to give the Warriors a 79-74 lead, bringing what was a confused, quiet Oracle Arena in the first half, roaring to its feet.
A 27-footer by Curry, followed by his trademark shimmy-shake with just over two minutes to go, pushed the lead to 82-76.
Thompson — who went 9-for-14 from beyond the arc — hit three more threes in the fourth — including a step-up, wide-open look to extend the lead to 106-81 — putting an exclamation point on a bounce-back night for Golden State, which came in having lost back-to-back playoff games for the first time since the 2016 NBA Finals.
“We know how we have to guard him, and a lot of those looks were Klay Thompson — he can score, what, 60 in a quarter?” said Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. “That puts him in elite status. It’s up to us to do a better job.”
In a game the Warriors absolutely had to win not to advance, but to merely survive, they came out distant and disjointed on both ends of the floor. In the first quarter alone, the Rockets scored more points on the break — 19 — than the Warriors did in all of Game 1.
While Golden State moved the ball much better than in the last two games, the Warriors were 1-for-7 from three, while Houston — led by Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon — went 8-of-12 from beyond the arc in the first quarter alone.
“This game was a pretty good microcosm for us,” Kerr said. “We have these lapses and these bursts, and everything in between. It was a strange start to the game. You could tell that Houston could see the finals, right here. We knew Houston was going to come out hot. They came out loose. I shot they would shoot 50 threes tonight, they got 39 but it seemed like 50 was where it was heading. Once we settled down defensively, staying with people and not making mistakes in transition, we started wearing them down a little bit.”
Thompson and Stephen Curry went a combined 3-for-13 from three in the first half, while Kevin Durant — whose isolation game had stalled Golden State’s free-flowing offense over the last two games — went just 3-for-11 before the break, and took 10 free-throw shots, and the rest of the Warriors took none. Even when it appeared as though Durant would move the ball, after one pass, he revered back to his one-on-one tendencies.
On the other side, James Harden scored 22 points in the first half, but without an injured Chris Paul, that pace just wasn’t sustainable, especially with Thompson marking him.
“Klay was amazing tonight, and not just the 35 points, but his defense,” head coach Steve Kerr said. “The guys’ a machine. He’s so fit physically. He seems to thrive in these situations. He was fantastic.”
Harden finished with 32 (10-of-24), and no other Rockets player had more than 19. He went to the line nine times in the first half, but none after the break. For the Warriors, Curry finished with 29, and Durant, 23.
“When your back’s against the wall, and your shot’s not falling, you can always control your passion and how hard you play,” Thompson said. “When I do that, it trickles over to other aspects of my game.”
“The two-way ability of this guy, hounding the MVP of the league … all game and continuing to rain down three-pointers, he’s amazing,” Kerr said of Thompson.
With 4:27 to go, Kerr subbed in Patrick McCaw. The guard had not played since March 31, when he came crashing to the floor against the Sacramento Kings, bruising his lumbar spine. The same player who momentarily couldn’t feel his legs — and at times doubted if he would walk again — two months ago, played out the final four minutes, and received a standing ovation upon his entrance. His step-back jumper with 2:57 to go was one of the most-cheered moments of the night.