Klay Thompson dares you to underestimate him

Klay: 'We were better than the Showtime Lakers' (0:35)

During their postgame news conference, Klay Thompson interrupts Draymond Green to say that the Warriors team is better than the Showtime Lakers. (0:35)

During a timeout with 4:54 left in the second quarter of Game 6 of the Western Conference finals and the Thunder leading Golden State by 11, Luke Walton sensed that the Warriors' dream season had reached its moment of truth -- that someone had to deliver an uncomfortable message.

Walton shouted into the huddle that both Games 3 and 4 in the Thunder's raucous arena had gotten away from the Warriors at the end of the first half. He implored them: They could not slip again in that last 4:54.

Walton understood the risk in bringing up past failures at a critical juncture. "You never want to plant negative thoughts in the minds of your players," Walton told ESPN.com before Golden State's Game 2 squashing of Cleveland in the Finals. "But I felt like I had to bring it up. There could be no regrets. And I knew our guys would lock in."

Soon, Draymond Green was echoing Walton, players said. Stephen Curry jumped in, too: They had to win those final 4:54. Klay Thompson, as usual, said nothing -- or at least nothing Thompson or anyone else recalls. He is the second Splash Brother, the least heralded of Golden State's superstar trio. Green is the team's fiery soul, and Curry the two-time MVP glitch in the system; when Curry and Thompson vacationed together in Spain a few years ago, locals handed Thompson their cameras and asked him to snap photos of them posing with Curry.

But it was Thompson who saved the Warriors' season that night in Oklahoma City, and Thompson who has been their best and most consistent player all postseason. Everyone remembers the five preposterous triples Thompson hit in the fourth quarter as Golden State jolted back to life, but no one should forget the three he nailed in those final 4:54 to keep the Warriors thrashing above water.

Only a basketball killer would take, and make, those shots. Thompson's aura of SoCal chill shrouds a fierce competitor roiling with the same combination of supreme confidence and jilted bitterness that drives Green.

"You don't see it with Klay," Steve Kerr told ESPN.com. "You don't hear it. He rarely speaks. But that guy is a baller."

As West Coast guys, both Kerr and Walton can relate to the misconception. "There is definitely a laid-back Southern California vibe with Klay -- and us," Walton said. "It just looks like you don't care. But Klay has a burning desire to be great, and to win. That night in Oklahoma City, he would not let us lose."

"He's like the first Terminator -- the one who doesn't say anything, but computes his mission in his head," Warriors general manager Bob Myers told ESPN.com. "The Terminator's mission is to kill John Connor. Klay's mission is to win games."

It wasn't surprising when Green barked out the names of all 34 players drafted ahead of him in 2012. Thompson, the No. 11 pick in 2011, quietly burns the same fuel for motivation -- not what you'd expect from a happy-go-lucky jokester who wanted to sign his contract extension without his agent present so that he could get home sooner and play with his dog, Rocco.

Thompson holds a semi-tongue-in-cheek grudge against the Kings for daring to draft another shooter, Jimmer Fredette, over him. "I considered myself the best shooter in that draft, so when someone took another shooter over me, it was a slap in the face," Thompson told ESPN.com after Game 1 of the Finals.

He delights in reminding teammates and coaches behind closed doors that two Cavaliers, Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, went ahead of him in the same draft; he quips that the Cavs took "the wrong Thompson," team officials say. "He definitely remembers Kyrie went before him," assistant GM Kirk Lacob told ESPN.com. "I can say that for sure."

When the league revealed the All-NBA teams last month, with Damian Lillard making the second team ahead of Thompson, he steamed, team officials said. He stormed around the locker room, asking if voters had watched him defend Lillard in the second round. They politely reminded Thompson that voters submit ballots before the playoffs.

"I will never admit someone should be ahead of me," Thompson said.

And the Warriors are nearly unanimous on this: No one takes a loss harder. "He loses the way you want a player to lose," said Ron Adams, another Golden State assistant. "It strikes him to the heart."

He hasn't exploded yet in these Finals, but his 17-point, five-assist performance in Game 2 showed off an expanding breadth of skills few thought he would acquire during the lead-up to the 2011 draft. He has spent a lot time defending Irving, attaching himself to Irving's hip, hounding him around picks, vaporizing the airspace Irving needs to launch pull-up jumpers.

When Irving or J.R. Smith screen for LeBron, the Warriors happily switch Thompson onto King James -- banking on Thompson's ability to hold a much larger man at bay, so that the Warriors can wait until just the right moment to pounce with their swiping help defense. Thompson couldn't quite manage that in last year's Finals; James mostly steamrolled him.

Thompson has put up stiffer resistance this time. He can't keep James from the rim on his own, but he has made LeBron work harder, expend more energy and suck up more time to gain every inch:

He has contained Kevin Love on the block after the Warriors switch the Irving-Love pick-and-roll; Love is an ugly 5-of-15 on post-ups in four games against Golden State this season, and he hasn't drawn a single shooting foul on those plays, per Synergy Sports.

Thompson's primary assignments on defense so far in the playoffs have been, in order: James Harden, Lillard, Russell Westbrook and the Irving/James combination. We often hear how guys like Harden and James carry such heavy burdens on offense that they need to rest on the other end. Thompson has chased those studs while logging 35 minutes per game, leading the Warriors in scoring, and canning a ridiculous 44 percent from deep on nearly 10 attempts each night.

"Think about that gauntlet," Kerr said of Thompson's marks. "To do that and shoot the way he has? It's unreal."

He also covers more distance -- about 2.5 miles per game -- than any of his teammates, per SportVU data.

"He never gets tired," Walton said.

Even bullish executives didn't see this coming in 2011 -- a perceived lack of respect that still rankles Thompson. He came across as quiet, disinterested, lacking a hunger to broaden both his game and his life horizons. During his rookie season, the Warriors assigned him a book report on "Play Their Hearts Out," George Dohrmann's outstanding peek inside West Coast AAU basketball -- an attempt to coax Thompson out of his comfort zone, and "expand his mind beyond basketball," Lacob said.

Draft experts wondered if he was too slow to defend at a high level. "I'd read reports, and they'd say, 'His defense needs work, he's not quick, he can't stay in front of anybody,'" Thompson said. "And I'd be like, 'Are these guys even watching me play?'"

The intel on Thompson was so jumbled, the Spurs needed two private workouts before deciding to attempt trading up to get him. After one workout, Chip Engelland, the Spurs' shooting guru, told the front office something that made their hair stand on end, officials remember: Thompson's competitive nature reminded him of Manu Ginobili.

"There's something deep in there," Engelland recalled. "He has that chip. When you see it, you know it."

Thompson says heated competition with his athlete brothers, Mychel and Trayce, made losing at anything -- basketball, pingpong, whatever -- a searing, unpalatable personal failure. And he has always been a worker. Lacob once asked Thompson what he did for fun. Thompson simply responded, "I like to shoot." Lacob explained that he meant what Thompson did off the floor. Thompson shrugged and repeated himself: "I like to shoot."

He applied that same work ethic to other parts of his game. The summer after his rookie season, Thompson spent a month with Darren Erman, then a Golden State assistant, honing the grunt work of defense. They drilled slithering over picks, lunging inside to help, and then scurrying back to shooters without conceding a blow-by drive.

When they were done, they would watch film of Thompson and other players executing those same techniques in games. Other young Golden State players sometimes asked if the summer workload was mandatory. It wasn't, but Thompson never asked, Erman said.

There is some debate about how good Thompson really is on defense. Advanced numbers still paint him as mediocre, much worse than his growing reputation as a stopper. He's a below-average rebounder, he doesn't swipe steals and he can be a little foul-prone -- bad math that submarines some of his adjusted plus-minus numbers. He's a little spacey off the ball, which is why the Warriors prefer deploying him against lead ball handlers.

Thompson is indisputably great at that job, and his ability to do it against players of different sizes helps unlock the switching scheme that has drained all the pass-happy lifeblood from Cleveland's offense.

On the other end, Thompson isn't a primary ball handler, and he obviously benefits from playing next to Curry. That has spawned a popular parlor game in NBA front offices: How overmatched would Thompson look if he and Harden swapped teams -- and roles?

It's a fair question. Thompson isn't an explosive ball handler; he struggles to beat most wing players one-on-one, and he's an average passer. But it's easier to pigeonhole a player as what he is than to imagine what he might be in another context.

Thompson has slowly improved his off-the-bounce game, and his elite shooting provides a head start. Skills aren't discrete things that exist independently. They interact. One historically great skill can lift up lesser ones.

Run Thompson off a pindown screen, and defenses fearing an avalanche of catch-and-shoot jumpers might switch a bigger dude onto him -- gifting Thompson a tiny speed edge he can leverage into drive-and-kick action:

Slide him into a pick-and-roll, and he presents a DEFCON 2 version of the Curry threat level. Defenses either trap or switch, and if they choose the latter, boom: another teensy speed advantage Thompson can exploit:

Defenders have to play up in his jersey, and that proximity makes it easy for Thompson to toast them -- especially when he jukes them off-balance first, so that they have to sprint wildly at him:

Again: When you can shoot like Thompson, you don't need Westbrook's ferocious speed. Thompson has become calmer in traffic since the days of the botched "Klay-up"; he finishes more accurately at the rim, draws more fouls and commits fewer turnovers. In Game 2, he found Shaun Livingston on a positively artful 2-on-1 break that left Golden State officials chuckling about how badly the same play might have gone two years ago.

Plop Thompson into Harden's place, and he would suffer growing pains as a primary option. But that simplistic framing ignores the team-building process, and undersells Thompson's adaptability. The Rockets are constructed for Harden -- a group of screeners and stand-still shooters brought together to orbit around Harden's ball-dominant drives. If Thompson were Houston's alpha dog, the Rockets would build a different sort of team (one that would be better at defense).

Thompson would run a lot more pick-and-roll as a first option, and it's unclear how he would sustain under that load. But we should be careful conflating uncertainty about an imagined reality with certain failure. We don't know how Thompson would handle a heavy pick-and-roll dosage in part because it hasn't been available to him.

Curry is the dribbling star, and the Warriors aren't a big pick-and-roll team, anyway; only the Knicks set fewer ball screens this season, per NBA tracking data provided to ESPN.com. Give Thompson more reps, and he'd learn to negotiate trapping schemes. He's already doing that as a co-point guard alongside Andre Iguodala on Golden State's remodeled bench units.

Use him as a screener for point guards, and defenses would switch -- leaving Thompson with a little guy on him. Thompson could polish off his Mark Jackson-era post game.

All of this would come with more contested midrange shots, and Thompson's insane efficiency would tick down as a result. That's normal for any player thrust into a larger role. But he might end up a little like Seattle-era Ray Allen -- a non-traditional lead ball handler who helmed solid offenses despite the lack of a turbo first step.

Allen went one-on-one a lot as a Sonic, both on drives and post-ups, often after some initial action generated a friendly switch. He had free reign to worm his way into the lane for pull-ups and launch contested threes off the dribble. Peak Ray Allen zoomed a beat faster than peak Klay Thompson, but it's not a crazy stretch to imagine Thompson looking something like that as a first option. That team could still be pretty damn good with a killer second option and the right dash of extra ballhandling.

That team would not be as good as these Warriors with Thompson in a secondary role. Duh. The Warriors won 73 games, and they are on the verge of a repeat. They might be the best team ever. Barring foul trouble for Curry, they don't need Thompson to stretch his skill set into uncomfortable places. They just need him to do what he does, and do it well.

He's doing it well enough that locals will recognize him next time he and Curry are abroad together. "Maybe they'll say, 'Oh, yeah, that's the sidekick!'" Thompson said, laughing. "And that's fine with me."