By Wes Goldberg
Special to S.F. Examiner
OAKLAND — Without guard Klay Thompson over the last five seasons, the Golden State Warriors are 8-13. With Thompson on the bench with a sore knee for the past two games, Golden State has played arguably some of its most disjointed games this season, losing by 33 to the Boston Celtics at home and falling behind the Philadelphia 76ers by as many as 14 before a furious third-quarter comeback.
“These two games felt like an eternity,” Thompson said. “You miss it when your teammates and friends are competing without you. For me, it was about playing with energy and passion.”
On Friday, against a Denver Nuggets team angling for the top spot in the Western Conference standings, Thompson returned to give the Warriors the boost they needed, scoring a game-high 39 points in a 122-105 at Oracle Arena, shooting 13-of-22 and making nine of his 11 3-point attempts.
“It was huge just having Klay back,” said Warriors head coach Steve Kerr. “He was amazing. It was awesome.”
Thompson’s biggest games have often come in the most dire moments. He memorably made 11 3-pointers to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference finals and, in last season’s conference finals, helped stave off elimination by hitting nine threes to beat the Houston Rockets and force a Game 7.
While the stakes were not quite as dire Friday night, the Warriors were coming off of one of their worst losses of the season to the Celtics on Tuesday, in which the team pointed to a slow start and missing intensity. Thompson’s impact was swift and immediate.
He welcomed himself back with an early 3-pointer and, later, a steal, cruelly picking the pocket of Nuggets guard Will Barton, and assisting on a Kevin Durant transition jumper. Thompson assisted or scored on 10 of Golden State’s first 14 points.
“When he hit that first three, just kinda jacked it over somebody when [Durant] kind of flipped the ball back to him, I knew it would be good,” said forward Draymond Green.
The last time these teams played, on Jan. 15, Golden State scored 51 points and made 10 3-pointers in the first quarter in 142-111 rout. Six minutes into the Friday’s game, the Warriors jumped out to a 27-8 lead and it looked like they might be on its way to a repeat performance.
The Nuggets, however, answered the run with a 26-7 run of their own to tie the game in the second quarter. Thompson checked in and picked up where he left off. He scored 17 points and made all four of his 3-pointers in the quarter to guide the Warriors to a 67-50 lead at halftime — a lead that carried them through the end of the game.
Along with Durant (26 points, six assists), Thompson helped lift a Warriors team that had lost four of the previous seven entering the game. In addition to the slow scoring starts, Golden State had been giving up an average of 112.4 points per game.
The Warriors stepped up their defense, limiting Denver to 37.9 percent shooting and outscoring the Nuggets 32-18 in fast-break points. Nikola Jokic was once again held below his All-Star averages by Golden State, finishing with 16 points, six rebounds and four assists.
“I thought our defense was good, we were covering for each other,” Durant said. “I thought [DeMarcus Cousins] set the tone with being physical with Jokic, which is the head of the snake for this team. He usually gets his baskets really easy, he likes to play in the flow and kind of dictate the game with his passing but I thought Cuz did a good job of getting into him, making it tough on him all night.”
Denver head coach Michael Malone said before the game his focus is on guiding the franchise to its first playoff berth since 2014. The Nuggets narrowly missed the playoffs last year, but have clearly taken a leap this season. While poised to make the postseason, the young Nuggets are still a ways away from challenging Golden State.
The win gives the Warriors (45-20) a two-game lead over the Nuggets (43-22) for the top seed and homecourt advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. The Warriors will take a 2-1 series lead into the fourth and final matchup between the two teams on April 2 at Golden State.
Now healthy (center Kevon Looney and guard Shaun Livingston also returned after missing time), the Warriors hope to avoid the March malaise of last season and hold on to homecourt advantage.
“It’s very important. We want that so badly,” Thompson said. “We know how advantageous that is, especially after last year, going to Houston in the West finals. That was a nail-biter series. To be able to start at home would be huge and we got our eyes set on that.”