Inside Klay Thompson's emotional journey back to NBA Finals
By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
With Klay Thompson, it's easy to forget everything he has gone through.
When you watch him play, he's still the silky shooter capable of scoring 30 points on any given night, a reality that can blur our memories of his recent struggles.
But if you look closely, there's evidence that something has profoundly changed.
For someone who is famously even-keeled, joy and emotions have been pouring out of him.
This was never more on display than when the Warriors punched their ticket to the NBA Finals for the sixth time in eight years with a 120-110 victory over the Dallas Mavericks in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals.
Thompson shimmied with joy after making a 3-pointer in the second quarter. He danced to the roaring screams of 18,000 fans as the final buzzer sounded, pumping his arm and bending his knees to the rhythm.
He choked back tears when interviewed at center court by TNT host Ernie Johnson, cutting off their chat after one question because he was too emotional to continue.
He flashed a giant smile as he walked into a room filled with reporters, saying, unprompted, "I'm actually happy to be up here tonight."
And he beamed when a reporter alerted him that he had just become the first player in NBA history to have multiple games with at least eight 3-pointers in series-clinching wins.
For Thompson, it was all unusual behavior.
While Stephen Curry plays with ineffable joy and Draymond Green plays with incomparable passion, Thompson is a steadying force who doesn't get too high or low. He's an assassin of nets who silently slinks around the court, making long-range shots and never wanting attention for it.
But things have changed for Thompson. Only a short while ago, he had to relearn to walk twice after suffering ACL and Achilles injuries that sidelined him for two-and-a-half years.
After everything he has been through, he's enjoying things differently now.
"This time last year, I was just starting to jog again and get up and down the court," Thompson said. "Now, to be feeling like myself, feeling explosive, feeling sure in my movements, I'm just grateful."
Thompson often thinks back to what he refers to as "the dark times." He remembers the surgery table. The rehab sessions. The exasperation.
He endured grueling physical therapy sessions in which he said he did thousands of calf raises. At times, he felt so defeated that he was consumed by his bad moods, so much so that he couldn't even feign pleasantries.
In those moments, his future seemed grim. Would he ever become the player he once was?
After finishing with a game-high 32 points, including 8-for-16 shooting from beyond the arc in the Warriors' clincher on May 26, he couldn't help but remember all the pain amid the joy.
"I dreamed about this, like, every day," Thompson said. "I thought about those days I couldn't run or jump, how lucky we are to do what we do. Just to be here again, wearing this shirt, wearing this hat. ... I dreamed of this."
For the Warriors, reaching the NBA Finals after missing the playoffs in two straight seasons was an incredible relief. But as everybody celebrated that feat, it was clear that Thompson's journey was front and center in their minds.
"I'm happy for everybody," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "I could go down the list. Each player has a unique individual background and story, and I'm happy for all of them. But it's hard not to be the most excited for Klay, given what he's gone through."
Thompson was sidelined for 941 days. During that time, he kept working. He turned to music, swimming in the San Francisco Bay and boating to maintain his sanity.
But at times, the frustration and disappointment were overwhelming.
While most of that transpired behind the scenes, we got a peek into his pain in November, when he sat on his team's bench following a victory over Portland. For about half an hour, he had a towel draped over his head. At times, his eyes filled with tears. Teammates and staff members took turns sitting with him.
At that point, he was so close to returning, he could taste it. But it would take more than another month before he played in his first game since suffering the torn ACL in the 2019 NBA Finals.
He has since been trying to return to superstar form.
The five-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA selection and one-time All-Defensive player keeps making progress. He's gaining confidence. He's taking better shots. He's slowly regaining his explosion on the defensive end.
"He's 20 percent better than he was two months ago, and he's going to get better and better," Warriors general manager Bob Myers told FOX Sports. "I think this is as close as how he looked prior to injury. I think he can be even better with a little more of an offseason, but I think he has been unbelievable."
Thompson averaged 20.4 points in 29 minutes over 32 games this season. He shot 42.9% from the field and 38.5% from beyond the arc, a marked dip from the 46.7% from the field and 40.2% from beyond the 3-point line that he shot during the 2018-19 season.
But he keeps improving.
He has had three 30-point performances in the playoffs. And the Warriors will undoubtedly need him to be a force on both offense and defense in order to have a chance of beating the defensive-minded Boston Celtics in the Finals.
According to Green, Thompson is a difference-maker for the Warriors even though he's not 100 percent.
"Klay is a dog," Green said. "I've said it over and over again: He's going to fight. He's going to battle no matter what. Most important thing to him is always to win."
While Thompson is still regaining his peak physical strength, in some ways his time away from the game forced him to mature. He spent the past two years watching from the sideline, studying the game in a different way. It made him wiser, more grateful and a better leader.
"If anything, he came back stronger mentally," Jordan Poole said. "When he came back, he became a vet. Now he has younger guys looking up to him, watching his every step. Especially me, personally, you know, being able just to talk to him, pick his brain, to see how mentally strong he is. He can just come in and make an impact on both sides of the ball."
For the 32-year-old Thompson, it has been a long, winding journey.
When he was a rookie back in 2011, he never could've imagined that his team would be so successful. He had no idea that the Warriors would become a dynasty.
And now that they're back on top of the league, he's savoring every moment.
The day of each game, he eats a good breakfast, jumps into his 65-degree pool, plays with his bulldog, Rocco, and sometimes dabbles with his Nintendo.
Then he does what he loves most in the world: He plays basketball on one of the biggest stages in sports.
For Thompson, it's perfection. It's exactly what he envisioned in the midst of his despair.
"I just saw this in sight and kept going," he said.
Now, he's just four wins away from another championship.
He can't help but shimmy and dance and laugh, soaking up every moment.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter at @melissarohlin.