Steve Kerr’s team entered the fourth quarter of Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals at Chesapeake Energy Arena trailing the Oklahoma City Thunder 83-75. Most everything that had come before in this highly-anticipated series between top-tier contenders portended what seemed to be coming.
The Thunder were bigger, stronger, faster, and far more athletic than the Warriors, overwhelming the defending champions with physicality that naysayers long insisted would be their downfall. Oklahoma City took Game 1 at Oracle Arena, then waxed Golden State by a combined 52 points in Games 3 and 4 to gain a commanding lead in the series and come within a single victory of its long-awaited return to the NBA Finals. Twelve minutes and protecting an eight-point lead at home against a team they were clearly capable of dethroning was all that stood between the Thunder and another chance to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time.
Klay Thompson, though, had other plans.
He was the best player on the floor in Game 6 when it mattered most, and it wasn’t particularly close. Steph Curry had just been crowned the first unanimous MVP in NBA history. Kevin Durant had won the award in 2014, and Russell Westbrook would win it one year later. But as the fates of two organizations with long-term expectations of annual championship contention hung in the balance, Thompson was the one who made sure the game went his team’s way.
Golden State’s “other” Splash Brother poured in 19 of his game-high 41 points in the fourth quarter, going 5-of-6 from beyond the arc and breaking a 101-101 tie with a ridiculous catch-and-shoot triple in transition over the outstretched arms of Durant as the game clock read 1:35.
It was a performance for the ages, and not just because Klay Thompson set a playoff-record by draining 11 three-pointers or because he almost single-handedly helped Golden State, 73-9 during the regular season, stave off elimination. Three years later, the NBA is entering its most wide-open season in nearly a decade, a thrilling reality for which it has Thompson’s heroics to thank as much as anything else.
There’s no need to rehash the immediate snowball effect of the Warriors’ stunning Game 6 victory in detail. They went on to win Game 7 as Durant and Westbrook continued their struggles, then blew a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals as LeBron James staked his most forceful claim yet as the greatest player of all time. Mere hours after that heartbreaking loss, Draymond Green sat in the Oracle Arena parking lot and made two phone calls: One to general manager Bob Myers, and the next to Durant. One of the league’s most beloved superstars became its biggest villain a few weeks later, spurning Oklahoma City to sign with Golden State, later winning back-to-back championships and Finals MVP trophies for arguably the most talented team in NBA history.
Ripples of Thompson’s instant-classic Game 6 spread far beyond the Warriors, too.
Would James have felt comfortable leaving his hometown team last summer for a second time if the Thunder had held on against the Warriors and gone on to beat the Cavaliers in the Finals? Where would the Los Angeles Lakers be in their rebuilding process? Isn’t it safe to assume that Anthony Davis would have requested a trade elsewhere? Would Kyrie Irving have forced his way out of Cleveland if he hadn’t hit that iconic, go-ahead three-pointer over Curry in the waning moments of Game 7 at Oracle? Would Durant and Westbrook still be playing in Oklahoma City, their partnership forever cemented by winning a ring in 2016 – and perhaps another or even two more in the interim?
What about the Houston Rockets? Would they have already won a championship in an NBA that didn’t include the juggernaut Warriors? What if Zaza Pachulia would have never had the opportunity to slide under Kawhi Leonard’s foot in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals? Would the San Antonio Spurs have won that series? The Toronto Raptors wouldn’t have a championship, right? Where would Leonard currently be playing? And Paul George? What would the Brooklyn Nets have done in free agency this summer?
The 2019-20 season could be among the most exciting in league history, a possibility stemming from an endless array of lucky bounces, bad breaks, injuries, free-agent meetings, and much, much more. But all of it’s traceable back to Klay Thompson willing the Warriors to season-saving victory over the Thunder, a night that changed the NBA forever.