Those lovable, plucky underdogs, the Golden State Warriors. A couple of tough seasons — really one terrible season and another season that ended in disappointment, proved to be a mere traffic jam on the Warriors’ freeway of dominance.
For six consecutive seasons, the Warriors did not finish with a winning percentage worse than .595 and advanced to five consecutive NBA Finals. As of today, the Warriors are tied for the second-best record in the NBA.
They were doing their best to impersonate the end of the 20th century New York Yankees by going for four championships in five seasons when injury struck during the 2019 NBA Finals to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. Durant chose to rehab his Achilles injury on the East Coast, leaving the Warriors for the Brooklyn Nets, while Thompson stayed in the Bay Area with his ACL injury. Tack on a hand injury to Steph Curry, and the 2019-20 season was the Warriors’ worst since Dave Cowens was their coach.
The 2020-21 season was supposed to be the Warriors’ return to glory, but Thompson blew out an achilles while working out just one month before the start of the season. So prior to Sunday night, the last time that Thompson played in an NBA game, Durant was with the Warriors, Russell Westbrook was with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Anthony Davis was with the New Orleans Pelicans, Antonio Brown and Jon Gruden were with the Oakland Raiders, and the atmosphere wasn’t littered with virus.
NBATV aired Thompson’s player introduction in San Francisco on Sunday and it was electric. He was introduced last, the music was stopped, and he was showered with a hero’s welcome.
Thompson’s performance wasn’t quite where he left off in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals when he scored 30 points on 66.7 percent shooting from the field and 3-point line, and making two free throws and lobbying to stay in the game with a torn ACL — thank you Demarcus Cousins for taking that foul and getting him off that court. Last night Thompson scored 17 points, shooting 38.9 percent from the field, and 37.5 percent from three. He did, however, make his first shot and later crossed over Jarrett Allen of the Cleveland Cavaliers when the adrenaline then surged through his body and he dunked on Lauri Markkanen and Lamar Stevens.
There was another event airing on NBC — one of the wildest NFL regular-season games of all time — that received most of the attention from the sports world, but those of us who had NBATV going on our second screen were treated to the rare feel-good moment from a franchise that once said they were “light years” ahead of everybody.
We watch sports to watch the best in the world compete. As sick as some sports fans were of the Warriors’ dominance, it’s more than reasonable to feel bad for Thompson. He spent his last two-and-a-half years dealing with ACL and Achilles rehab. No human being would want to feel that discomfort, and sports fans lost out on seeing greatness.
As we’ve seen this season, when the Warriors are rolling, there is little in sports as exciting. The way that they move the ball, Curry’s three pointers from the club level, now Gary Payton II’s alley-oops, the present-day NBA is not as good of a product without the Warriors operating at max capacity.
Now, it appears that they are. The playoffs don’t begin for another four months, which gives Thompson plenty of time to re-acclimate himself to the game-to-game rigors of playing in the NBA, and there’s little pressure because the Warriors have already established themselves as a championship contender.
Fans of the Suns, Nets, and Lakers may be afraid of what’s to come from the full-strength Warriors in the postseason, but they should at least appreciate that, as of Jan. 9, the NBA felt a little bit more normal. Klay Thompson is playing basketball on television. That’s about as much normalcy as you can get in today’s world.