SALT LAKE CITY — The 3-pointer wasn’t swishing, so Klay Thompson had to switch things up.
Against a mediocre Utah Jazz defense, Thompson settled in, went mostly off-ball and found his mid-range shot. Eight of his 11 makes were for 2 for an easy team-leading 26 points. To win, the Warriors didn’t need Thompson to go scorched Earth from beyond the arc; on two surgically-repaired legs in his 34th year, Thompson’s teammates need him to embrace what the game gives.
“Looked really good tonight. He looked composed. Not forcing anything,” Draymond Green said. “He looked like he was just at peace.”
This hasn’t been a peaceful year for Thompson. At its peaks, Thompson plays like he did in Utah — as an evolved version of himself that can lay low on nights he doesn’t have his legs, but keeps defenses preoccupied as a threat to pop off into a scoring frenzy on a dime. In its valleys, Thompson grows visibly upset that he’s not always the bonafide second option, the go-to closer and scorer he was before his two major injuries.
His frustrations bubble to the surface when coach Steve Kerr benches him to close games while he struggles. He kicked chairs and threw objects after being benched late in a loss to Phoenix in November. He expressed a realization that he’d gone from “one of the best players” to a mere mortal in crunch time when rookie Brandin Podziemski and G League call-up Gui Santos got to close over him in a win over the Brooklyn Nets last week.
After not closing a win against the Suns on Saturday, Thompson sat fully dressed in his game-worn jersey with a towel over his head, staring daggers at the inside of his locker. Jerome Robinson gave him a shoulder-squeeze of encouragement on his way out and Thompson chucked his phone into his locker in frustration — not with Robinson, but with himself.
It may be deduced that Thompson’s frustrations signal a refusal to accept his new reality. But it only reveals Thompson’s outlier competitiveness as a double-edged sword.
“I feel like I’m handling it good. I understand there will be ups and downs,” Thompson said. “You want to be as consistent as possible, but at least I’m out there playing and healthy.”
Thompson’s future with the Warriors may depend on how he balances his passion with reason. Will he go searching for a contract that rewards the player he used to be and, perhaps, still thinks is somewhere in him? Or will he settle into something that suits how he’s matured?
Despite his outward dismay, Thompson told The Ringer he knows he will have to accept a lesser role in the last part of his career. Thompson referenced his idol Ray Allen, a superstar who embraced a lesser role with the Miami Heat late in his 30s.
“Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Thompson told The Ringer. “I’ll be 35 next year. At 35, coming off the ACL and an Achilles (tear) and still have the ability to be a really good player. Maybe not the guy who scored 60 in three quarters and scored an NBA record 37 points in a quarter, but still a great threat out there.
“I’ve modeled my game after Reggie (Miller) and Ray and those guys were incredibly effective until their late 30s. So I plan on kind of following that mold.”
Green saw that quote floating around online and brought it up after the game in Utah.
“That’s great,” Green said. “You see young guys taking these next step they’re taking — the JKs, the BPs — you have to allow that growth and you have to be OK with that growth. Klay is growing into that. That’s an interesting position to be in. To see him settling in is big for this team. We need Klay. We need a very good Klay which allows us to make a run.”
Thompson’s 17.1 points per game are the fewest he’s averaged since the 2012-13 season and his 37.3 percent from 3 is well below his 41.3% career average. All said, what might matter most is that Thompson has shown he can evolve off his past. That’s something Thompson and the Warriors can benefit from — as they saw in Utah.
“For him to be able to show up the way he did tonight speaks to his confidence in himself and competitive nature,” Steph Curry said. “He would say it’s not been easy all year, but life ain’t easy. Your work isn’t easy so you have to take the highs with the lows. Whatever peace of mind you can find to enjoy basketball, that’s where he thrives the most. We’re encouraging him to do that and that’s what he’s telling himself.”