Klay Thompson’s return a long-awaited comeback for the Warriors’ Big Three — The Undefeated

SAN FRANCISCO ­­— Just seven seconds into Klay Thompson’s return after 941 days, his Golden State Warriors teammate Draymond Green fouled one of his foes and exited the game for good before it truly started.

Green aggravated a calf injury before the game and was not supposed to play. But after the long road Thompson traveled to overcome a torn ACL and Achilles tendon, Green believed that if his teammate could finally get back on the court, he should, too — even if it was just for a few seconds.

“I don’t think my calf injury is a big issue, but it was important for me to be out there for Klay’s first game back,” Green told The Undefeated after the Warriors’ 96-82 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday night. “I’ve been waiting on this moment for almost three years. I wanted to feel the energy, but more importantly, if he was going to walk out there and be there for this moment, I was going to do it.”

The Warriors made five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals from 2015 to 2019, winning three championships. Important figures along the way included two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant, Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut and such current Warriors as Kevon Looney and 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala. But through their triumphant run, the main threads were always Thompson, Green and Stephen Curry.

Curry, Green and Thompson have now been together for 10 seasons and earned the right to be viewed as one of the greatest trios in NBA history.

“As far as ranking us as the Big Three, one thing’s for certain, we changed the game of basketball, us three together,” Green said.

Said Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff: “Not to short what KD did here, but they’re everything. They are the beginning of it. I remember playing them when [I coached] in Houston before, and you started to see the shift in how they played stylistically. And it was those guys’ willingness to play the way and style they played that made them [the] team and dominant force they are.”

The Curry-Green-Thompson trio took a long hiatus after June 13, 2019. That night, the Warriors played their last game in Oakland, California, losing a deciding Game 6 of the NBA Finals to the Toronto Raptors. Thompson scored 30 points, but also suffered a torn ACL in his left knee. Thompson was actually getting a CT scan when the final buzzer sounded, a source said.

Suddenly, Thompson’s beloved basketball was taken away from him. In hopes of making him feel better, Green showed up to his house the next day with a pack of dominoes and his mouth.

“The day after Klay tore his ACL, he was down and was just laying at the house,” Thompson’s agent Greg Lawrence said. “There was a knock on the door and it was Draymond. He comes into the house to play dominoes and cards to spend time with him. Draymond came in talking s— to Klay about how he was going to take his money. That was what Klay needed.”

Thompson missed the Warriors’ 2019-20 NBA season. With an injury-plagued Curry, Golden State’s league-worst 15-50 record was the franchise’s first losing mark since the 2011-12 season. Without Thompson last season, the Warriors were 39-33 and lost two play-in games to miss the postseason for the second year in a row.

Losing without Thompson gave Curry and Green much more appreciation for what they had accomplished together.

“You still learn the lesson that this s— is not guaranteed,” Green said. “As someone who had never missed a playoff and my third year won a championship, my fifth year won a championship, my sixth year won a championship, that’s all you really know. And the two [seasons] wrapped around [Thompson], I was lost all of a sudden. It’s not like I went through the rehab process and what he’s endured, but my life is directly impacted by that, so we learn a different appreciation for winning.”

Said Curry: “With him, hopefully we’re back at that level we’re used to being in and kind of go from there with what our high expectations are.”

Klay Thompson (right) and Draymond Green (left) celebrate on the bench against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the second quarter at Chase Center on Oct. 30, 2021, in San Francisco.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Green told The Undefeated that after the 2019-20 season, he and Thompson were playing pickup ball regularly in the offseason with other NBA players at a gym in Los Angeles, where Green has an offseason home. On Nov. 18, 2020, Green texted Thompson to tell him he couldn’t play with him that day because he was leaving for a family vacation that night. It was also the same date as the 2020 NBA draft, when the Warriors would end up selecting James Wiseman with the second overall pick.

Hours before the draft, however, Warriors general manager Bob Myers called Green and opened by asking, “Did you hear what happened?” Green responded by asking if he was traded. Myers informed Green that Thompson tore his right Achilles tendon playing basketball at the downtown LA gym just weeks before the start of training camp.

Now, Thompson says he was probably doing too much too soon. Green says “part of me felt guilty” for not being there.

“I had texted Klay 20 minutes before Bob Myers called just saying something like, ‘Yo, I’m going out of town with my [wife]. Let me know the next time you’re going to be there,’ ” Green told The Undefeated. “And then I get that call and I’m like, ‘Had I gone, would this have happened?’ I was just feeling a side of guilt and I was crushed. I just texted him, everything was fine and I was supposed to play basketball with him. It’s just not possible …

“I remember it changed everything. Everything. It was interesting, the timing of it. But the thing I felt the most was just a sense of guilt. Had I shown up, would this have happened?”

Curry told The Undefeated in November 2020 that he was brought to tears when he learned that Thompson tore his Achilles tendon.

“You need to have a big-picture mentality when something like this happens,” Curry said then. “It’s easier said than done going through a lot of rehab, but there is a lot of time left in his career. We’re going to be there through it all.”

There have been times during Thompson’s layoff when he has been emotional on the Warriors bench after games. Green and Curry added that Thompson had a lot of painful moments behind the scenes that affected them both greatly. Green said he had “a million conversations” with Curry about Thompson and what, if anything, they could do to help him.

“You build this bond and brotherhood with someone, and in doing that, you only want the best for that person,” Green said. “In anything that person is going through on the court, off the court, you just want to help. And the toughest part for me was knowing there is nothing I can do, nothing any of us can do to help. It never stopped any of us from trying, though, but somewhere in the back of your mind, you just knew there was really nothing you could do.

“So you pull out all the stops you could … So to watch him go through his struggles, the roller coaster he’d be on from day to day, where one to three days later, he comes in talking and won’t stop talking, kicking it with everybody. But then you get to the fourth day part of the stretch and he’d walk in and doesn’t say a word to anybody. He’s going on about what he’s doing and he’s wearing those emotions.”

Said Curry: “It’s difficult. It’s lonely. It’s monotonous.”

Klay Thompson (right) scored 17 points in 20 minutes in his return to the Golden State Warriors’ lineup Jan. 9 against the Cleveland Cavaliers in San Francisco.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

On Dec. 15, 2021, against the New York Knicks, Curry passed Ray Allen to become the NBA’s all-time leader with 2,974 career 3-pointers. The first person whom Curry hugged after play was stopped to celebrate the record was Green. Meanwhile, Thompson was watching from afar in Santa Cruz, California, while rehabilitating with the G League Santa Cruz Warriors.

Curry and Green said after the game that the only thing missing on Curry’s historic night was Thompson. Curry hung Thompson’s No. 11 jersey next to his in his visiting room locker afterward, along with jerseys from former 3-point kings Allen and Reggie Miller.

“Shooting the basketball is what we do,” Curry said. “The work we’ve put in since we got here. The love and inspiration we both have for each other and the internal competition, he helped me get to that point throughout my career. He wasn’t there, but I wanted to let him know I’m not the shooter I am without seeing Klay every single day do what he does. He keeps you sharp.”

Thompson warmly described Curry as “an incredible role model for me, even better leader” and said they had a great history together. A source also said Thompson was very emotional about not being in attendance when Curry set the NBA’s all-time 3-point record.

“Steph knows how hard I work,” Thompson said. “When he was doing that, I was supporting from Santa Cruz. I was competing with our G League team and they were getting me ready for this game tonight. I was there in spirit. He knows that. He knew I had things to do. Although it was tough to watch, I had to get right so I could help this team get a chip.”

It was only fitting that Curry and Green each had a moment in making Thompson’s return night special.

Curry has been announced last in the starting lineup for the Warriors for years. But on this night, the two-time MVP was announced fourth and left the bench before his name was even called. That allowed Thompson, the five-time NBA All-Star, to have the spotlight all to himself instead of Curry. When Thompson was announced last, the Chase Center crowd roared noticeably louder.

“It was special, just being set up for the love that I know he’s been waiting for, just that moment, [to] hear the crowd, [to] know that he’s gone through so many highs and lows over the last two years, that was the moment that he could celebrate that journey and just go hoop,” Curry said. “It delivered, that moment delivered for sure.

“I got goose bumps on the outside of the court just watching the smiles and all that. He’s earned, deserved, all that welcome back to the court moment and that was special.”

Said Thompson: “That was a very special moment. I’ll never forget this night.”

Green’s calf has been an issue of late, but neither he nor head coach Steve Kerr view it as serious. Kerr contacted Bickerstaff to let him know of Green’s plan to be a part of “Klay Day” just for a few seconds before departing to injury. Myers also called Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman to make him aware.

That was a lot of planning for just a few seconds. Green committed a foul seven seconds in just to begin the game with Thompson, then was subbed out. Just like old times, Curry had 28 points while Thompson had 17 points in 20 minutes. But Green’s gesture meant the world to Thompson, who looks forward to his next step of truly playing with Curry and Green again.

“Draymond is a winner and has been at every level. He’s very unselfish as a teammate. It just felt right to have him out there. I appreciate him, and can’t wait to compete with him again,” Thompson said.

Said Curry: “The only bittersweet part about tonight was Draymond having to miss the action. It’s something we all look forward to now being out there playing basketball together again.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.

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