Klay Thompson had drained one of his nine three-point shots and stared right at Houston’s James Harden. He put his chest into the likely most valuable player as he guarded him up the floor, bumping with him until officials called the foul.
Thompson turned his back and walked down the court, not intimidated by the contact. He shook his head.
Not Saturday night. Not in Game 6.
His Golden State team facing its earliest elimination since 2014, Thompson shot the defending champions into a Game 7, scoring 35 points in the Warriors’ 115-86 win at Oracle Arena.
“The guy’s a machine,” coach Steve Kerr said. “…He seems to thrive in these situations. He was fantastic.”
Game 7 will be Monday night in Houston.
As the Warriors went down by 17 in the first quarter, it was Thompson who sparked a second-quarter comeback. As the Warriors opened the third quarter down 10, it was Thompson who opened the typical Warriors third-quarter barrage.
And it was Thompson draining one more shot to get to 35 points — three more than Harden, besting him in another chapter of one of the longest rivalries in the NBA.
These two fought when Harden wore “Artesia” and Thompson wore “Santa Margarita” on their chests. It continued in the final years of the Pac-10 whenever Harden’s Arizona State met Thompson’s Washington State. And it happened again Saturday in Oakland.
“Time flies,” Thompson said.
Thompson’s nine threes tied for the second most in NBA playoff history, two behind his record 11 that he made in 2016. That outburst came in a Game 6 with the Warriors trailing Oklahoma City 3-2 in the series before Thompson saved the season.
Saturday night, like he did that series in Oklahoma City, Thompson played with tremendous freedom under the high pressure.
“Klay doesn’t worry too much about repercussions. He doesn’t worry about judgment and results. I think he just loves to play,” Kerr said. “He’s so comfortable in his own skin. I just think he wants to go out there and hoop, and he doesn’t worry about much else. So the pressure doesn’t seem to bother him much. He just competes and plays.”
While Harden scored 32, he faded as the game went on. Thompson opened with just four points in the first quarter before he took over.
Golden State was lucky to have a player as calm as Thompson because for the first 12 minutes, there was a whole bunch of reasons to worry.
The Rockets opened the game with maybe their best quarter of the series. With Chris Paul stuck on the sideline because of a strained hamstring, Houston scored 39 points in the first quarter, with Harden, Eric Gordon, Paul’s replacement in the lineup, and Trevor Ariza combining for 33 points.
But in between all the scoring, all the made shots, the seeds of the Rockets’ demise were being planted. They fumbled the ball without pressure. They stepped on the sidelines. They lobbed passes instead of firing them with precision.
The Rockets turned it over five times in the first quarter and six in the second, keeping the Warriors in the game until they turned it on in the second half.
The 21 Houston turnovers are one fewer than they had in the previous two games of the series — both wins — a direct corollary to Paul’s absence.
Coach Mike D’Antoni said he doesn’t know whether Paul will be ready to play Monday or not.
“I hate it, [having him] on the bench. He needs to be on the floor. He doesn’t need to be anywhere near us,” D’Antoni said with a laugh. “…It probably killed him more than anything sitting over there with us. He’s getting a taste of ‘Uh, I don’t think coaching is for me.’”
If Paul plays, it’ll be Thompson shadowing him like he’s done for most of the series. And if he doesn’t, Thompson will again be draped on Harden, getting his body into the presumptive MVP.
“It’s incredible. He’s just a physical phenomenon. He’s got great genes. Obviously with [his father, former Laker] Mychal, his mom Julie was a volleyball player in college, his brothers are all athletes. He’s a physical specimen,” Kerr said. “The fact that he can guard someone like Harden and run off screens like he’s Reggie Miller, he’s amazing.”
Kevin Durant, who added 23 points, always will be a great offensive option. Stephen Curry, who scored 29, is the star who made the Warriors. But Thompson, when things have been roughest, always has managed to come through.
“I don’t know if I was born for it, but I definitely worked my butt off to get to this point,” he said. “And … I mean, I guess you could say I was born for it.