Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors knows that playing defense in the N.B.A. is difficult. As one of the league’s elite scorers, he causes his share of problems by launching 3-pointers from distant outposts. But he also has to spend about half his time trying to prevent opponents from doing the same.
“The game has become so spread out,” he said. “You’re out there on an island against these guys.”
Still, it is a challenge that Thompson has long embraced — and takes seriously. He is a connoisseur of basketball highlights on YouTube, not so much to pick up moves from opposing players but to figure out how to stop them. Whenever James Harden had one of his many big games for the Houston Rockets this season, Thompson plunged right into his clips.
“There are really no nights off as a defender,” Thompson said in a recent interview, “especially in the playoffs.”
Thompson, a 6-foot-7 shooting guard and a five-time All-Star, is getting tested again — with a sore right ankle, no less — as the Warriors take on the Rockets in their Western Conference semifinal series. But in helping Golden State to a 2-0 lead as the best-of-seven series shifts to Houston for Game 3 on Saturday, Thompson has played his familiar brand of rangy defense on guards like Chris Paul and Eric Gordon, collecting five steals while limiting his various assignments to 41.7 percent shooting.
One of his most valuable assets is his versatility: Thompson is quick enough to defend point guards but powerful enough to hold his own against power forwards. His presence gives the Warriors flexibility in pick-and-roll situations, because he can switch onto pretty much anyone.
“Everyone in the N.B.A. knows he’s going to guard,” said the Los Angeles Clippers’ Landry Shamet, a guard who was defended by Thompson for stretches of their first-round series. “Good feet. Good positioning. He’s longer than you expect, quicker than you expect — stronger, bigger. He has all the tools.”
Thompson was not always such a complete defender. He recalled running into Metta World Peace, the former defensive player of the year, early in his career and getting obliterated around the basket.
But Thompson has improved his lower-body strength — so many squats, he said — along with his savvy. He said he made his biggest jump as a defender in the summer of 2012, following his rookie season. Stephen Curry had missed most of the season with an injury, and the Warriors finished with a dismal record. But while the postseason was playing out, Thompson regularly joined several young teammates at the Warriors’ practice facility, where the coaching staff would put 60 minutes on the clock and have them defend.
“They would kill us,” Thompson said. “It was not fun, man.”
Mark Jackson, then the team’s coach, was in charge of the four-on-four drill, in which he passed the ball around the perimeter to members of his staff as Thompson and the others shuffled from side to side and worked on their rotations. They did it four days a week for about a month.
Thompson said he was motivated to improve as a defender because it was already becoming clear to him that Curry had the potential to be an all-world scorer. With that in mind, Thompson wanted to relieve some of the pressure — and physical strain — on Curry at the other end of the court.
“He was our anchor and such an offensive force,” Thompson said. “I was like, ‘I need to help this man out so he doesn’t have to chase these guys around.’ ”
The following season, Thompson began to take on defending lead guards — including Tony Parker when the Warriors ran into the San Antonio Spurs in the conference semifinals. The Warriors lost the series, but it was another learning experience.
“I think that’s when I figured out I could be a two-way force in this league,” Thompson said.
Thompson, with his brand of cool confidence, is one of the few players on the planet who can make that type of claim and somehow come off as unassuming. He is merely presenting facts, and opponents know it.
“He doesn’t get enough credit for what he brings to the table defensively, because he’s such an elite shooter,” the Clippers’ Lou Williams said. “But he’s a tough guard, man.”
One thing Thompson is not: a leaper. (In recent seasons, he has had a running competition with Zaza Pachulia to see who can dunk more often. Pachulia, a 35-year-old center and former teammate, is not particularly aerodynamic.) But Thompson said he does excel in lateral movement, a huge asset for a defender.
“I always thought I had fast feet,” he said.
At the same time, Thompson feels as if there are only a few big men who can overpower him in the post. Among them: Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, who, to be fair, cause problems for everyone. Thompson recalled some of his sporadic encounters with the Greek Freak. He frowned.
“I could not figure him out,” Thompson said.
But Antetokounmpo tends to be the exception. To provide insight into his defensive approach, Thompson agreed to review a clip of himself guarding Trey Lyles of the Denver Nuggets late in the regular season. The play highlighted Thompson’s resourcefulness: After getting switched onto the 6-foot-10, 234-pound Lyles, Thompson bullied him so far off the low block that Lyles had to take an entry pass a half-step inside the 3-point line.
“Look how far out he caught that,” Thompson said. “If he catches it in the post, big difference.”
Lyles tried to back his way down toward the basket by using his dribble, but Thompson held his ground. Lyles eventually uncorked a spin move that seemed born of desperation and was whistled for traveling. Thompson celebrated by pumping his fist.
“There’s no way he’s strong enough to put me all the way under the basket,” Thompson said. “But I couldn’t have done that six years ago.”
Ron Adams, an assistant coach for the Warriors, still sees areas where Thompson can grow — especially as a rebounder and as an off-the-ball defender. Like many players, Adams said, Thompson occasionally lets his focus lapse. But in one-on-one situations, he is tenacious.
“He’s one those guys who’s really engaged when he’s on the ball,” Adams said. “He loves the challenge of stopping someone.”
When Thompson was a younger player, he said, he concerned himself with awards. He wanted to be an All-Star (which has happened). He wanted to make one of the league’s All-Defensive teams (which has not). But he said he does not care anymore, not after winning three championships.
“At this point, I’ve been to the mountaintop,” Thompson said. “I’ve felt the Larry O’Brien Trophy, and that’s all I care about at this point: winning.”
The question now is who can stop him.
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