In the mad rush by Klay Thompson's father and Klay Thompson's agent to say all was well — no concussion, back at practice Monday, improvement rate described as “Antarctica to the jungles of Brazil” — they neglected a rather important variable concerning athletes and head injuries in the 21st century.
What did Klay Thompson's brain have to say about it?
The answer came Friday, when a neurologist confirmed that the brutal kneecap shot to the All-Star guard's head caused a concussion, placing a severe damper on the Warriors' NBA title hopes. The bullet they apparently dodged when Stephen Curry wasn't concussed, on his frightening flip and fall that caused only a head contusion, came back and nailed them when Trevor Ariza flattened Thompson with a Kung Fu knee to the skull. I'm of the opinion it was a deliberately dirty play, with the notorious Ariza extending his knee in mid-air after a Thompson head fake. But the NBA is letting the goons carry on without serious immediate penalties this spring, believing that postseason basketball should be officiated by UFC rules and played in an octagon.
Through a carefree, streamlined, six-month joyride of hoops ballet, we wondered what could be the eventual impediment to all the local grace and elegance. Turns out physicality, to extreme levels, is what could derail the Warriors. If you can't beat 'em, rough 'em up. In Curry's case, he simply was trying to do too much in attempting to block a shot by a player, Ariza, who is six inches taller. In Thompson's case, Ariza was a desperate man about to lose in the Western Conference finals, and while limbs tend to flail when a man is leaping, a kneecap does not suddenly make a sharp turn into the side of a rival's head, drawing blood and forcing him to the locker room for stitches.
“I've never been in a situation where I've kicked someone in the head. You always hope it isn't intentional,” said Thompson's teammate, Harrison Barnes.
It's impossible to say yet when he'll return to practice, much less whether he'll be ready for Game 1 Thursday night. Thompson can't participate in a team workout until the league is satisifed he's free of symptoms, and with critics watching closely during the Finals to see how the NBA handles Thompson's case amid a concussion crisis in sports, you can be sure commissioner Adam Silver won't green-light Thompson until he's 100-percent in the clear.
That means it won't be as simple as it was when Curry was examined in the locker room during Game 4 of the Houston series. Revolutionary as the Warriors have been as a basketball masterpiece, they seem back in the stone ages when it comes to concussion protocol. They shouldn't have allowed Curry to return in the third quarter, with the organization taking an unusual philosophical U-turn after owner Joe Lacob had assured Curry's father, Dell, that the team wouldn't be taking chances with his son's health. Despite criticism for not paying attention to the times — head injuries are a life-and-death issue in football, with players wearing helmets — the Warriors' doctors curiously cleared Thompson to return in the fourth quarter of Game 5.
He didn't play, thankfully, and during the post-game celebration late Wednesday night, the team issued a statement that Thompson had developed concussion-like symptoms after the game. He was unable to drive home, and his father, Mychal, reported that his son threw up twice. Which begs the question: Why did team doctors clear Thompson to play when the symptoms and the vomiting proved there was something wrong with him? As with Curry, it's difficult to determine the full impact of a concussion for 24-36 hours. We also know that sports teams lie about these things — I'm not accusing the Warriors of lying, just wondering what their doctors are doing — and that athletes think they're superhumans immune from head trauma. I assume Curry made the call to return and overruled any dissenters, possibly because he saw LeBron James collapse on a court the night before with numerous injuries and saw Michael Jordan once play a game while physically ill and didn't want people saying if he'd stayed in the locker room, “Yep, that Steph Curry is a scrawny, little wimp.”
Even on Friday, while saying he hopes and prays Thompson will be ready for the opener, Curry remained stubborn about the impact of head injuries in basketball. While football players are taking numerous blows to the head in every game, every practice, basketball players obviously aren't exposed to the same frequency of hits. But as evidenced at Oracle Arena, a concussion can happen, and the consequences can be serious.
“The amount of times that that's happened, I don't think that's too prevalent in basketball,” Curry said. “You kind of just go based on how you feel, the test that they run, and you have confidence that if they say you're OK to go out and play. But in the cases that I had, if you feel not yourself, you let them know and they pull you out and kind of reassess.
“That's why the protocol is what it is. You go through tests, if you pass, you're able to go back in there. You make a judgment call. Hopefully in basketball, you don't put yourself in too much danger as in other sports where you might be taking those big hits.”
For Thompson to be cleared for the Finals, he'll need the approval of Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, director of the league's concussion program. And before he returns to practice, he'll have to ride a stationary bike, jog and perform non-contact exercises. If he shows any post-concussion symptoms, he'll return to square one. In other words, it's possible Thompson won't play in Game 1, and, when he does return, it's possible he won't be at an All-Star level.
“I just do what the doctors say we should do. He'll practice when he can practice,” coach Steve Kerr said. “Obviously, we want to be as careful as possible and make sure our players are safe and sound and healthy. So we'll follow this protocol that the league provides and we'll have Klay out here when he's ready.”
Even before the concussion, Thompson had been wildly inconsistent throughout the playoffs, failing defensively against James Harden and producing hot-and-cold games on the offensive end. We forget, in Game 5, how he picked up his fourth and fifth fouls in a 22-second span early in the third quarter. Shouldn't Kerr be worried about Thompson's rhythm? “I think with Klay, probably not as much as some guys,” he said, perhaps wishfully thinking. “Klay picks up his rhythm very quickly. He'll have the next couple of days [off], then we'll re-evaluate. This [week-long] break has turned out to be good for us. It's something we have to work through. We'll see how it goes.”
The Cavaliers have injury problems, too, with All-Star guard Kyrie Irving battling knee tendinitis and foot soreness and James tired of spending so much time in the trainer's room. The Warriors were the one title contender that was avoiding injuries this postseason, watching with their fingers crossed as major players throughout the league went down. Now, they are living their second-worst nightmare, which came two nights after what would have been their worst nightmare.
The Warriors haven't called out Ariza, perhaps because they're embroiled in their own issues. The organization isn't used to being criticized this season, so the media questions about concussion protocol aren't appetizing. For credibility and integrity reasons, it's a good thing Thompson didn't return in the fourth quarter Wednesday night. But was that because they were being cautious with his health? Or, more to the point, was it because Barnes and Andre Iguodala were playing so well?
Suddenly, Barnes is a major figure in the Finals. Was his scoring spree in Thompson's absence a breakthough he can carry into the series? He says he was motivated to bail out his teammate in the fourth quarter, when he made the biggest shots that led to the pullaway surge. “You're kind of overcome with emotion,” Barnes said. “Any time you see a teammate go down, you want to do whatever you can to step up for him.”
He thought the bailout would be for one night. Seems it could be for two nights now.