Brains are weird. They’re raw meatloaf lollipops inside of us that control every single thing that happens in our bodies and log everything we do and feel and think. And sometimes, suddenly, you’re feeling things you felt a decade ago because you smelled a shampoo you used to use or something weird like that.
Klay Thompson is back. The Golden State Warriors guard is expected to see his first game action in roughly two-and-a-half(!!!!!) years in tonight’s contest against, poetically and almost certainly purposefully chosen, the Cleveland Cavaliers. And, just like smelling your old shampoo, seeing Klay again has dredged up a wild smattering of emotions.
Cavs-Warriors isn’t what it used to be. The closest it’s been to resembling a rivalry since 2018 was two seasons ago, when each team caboose’d its respective conference and they spent the year dueling for pole lottery positioning. There are many reasons for that, chief among them a certain now-Los Angeles Lakers forward leaving Cleveland to become a now-Los Angeles Lakers forward. But the Warriors haven’t been their complete selves for a few years now, either—not until tonight.
I’ve always been terrified of Klay Thompson. To me, he’s what made Warriors teams of old The Warriors. Stephen Curry was the accelerant that fueled their dimension-warping offense, and Draymond Green the versatile matrix who quarterbacked their suffocating, shapeshifting defense. As the second-best shooter ever and a top-shelf defender, Thompson figured heavily into both.
The thing I remember most about those Warriors, though, was how inevitable they felt. How every missed shot felt like it’d be their last. How quickly the smallest defensive leak became a cascade that washed away any and every deficit. Beating the Warriors came at the price of 48 minutes of clenching every muscle fiber in your body, unless the third-quarter Warriors mercifully doused your hopes early.
That part of The Warriors has always felt most like Thompson. He may not define the dynasty, but he might be responsible for more flashbulb moments than any other Warrior. Game 6 Klay. 60 points on 11 dribbles. 14 threes in 27 minutes. 37 in a quarter. They were going to beat you. Curry and Green dictated how, Thompson dictated when.
In a way, that felt like the Cavs’ biggest conquest in the 2016 Finals. They survived 37 from Klay in Game 5 thanks to double 41’s from LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. The Cavs’ early-Game 6 barrage was nearly erased thanks to a Thompson mini-run that trimmed the lead to seven late in the game. It didn’t really matter that Thompson struggled in Game 7 (14 points on 6-for-17 shooting); the ghosts of Game 6 Klay and other Thompsons past refused to allow even a moment of rest.
Things between the Cavs and Warriors are different now. Have been for a long time. The Cavs won a title, their window closed, and now they’re attempting to open a new one. The Warriors kept being The Warriors without The Cavs. Three years in the basement and some (relative) objectivity gave my blood what it needed to stop boiling at the mere thought of them; in fact, the basketball fan in me even learned to appreciate them. (Still root against them at every opportunity, though.)
One thing that still hasn’t changed is that I’m still terrified of Klay. There’s just a new flavor to the fear. To be clear, I’m still terrified that Thompson will return against the Cavs and set a new single-game record for threes made. Should that happen, I have no doubt my blood will be simmering in seconds.
But I’m also terrified that he won’t. That a lot changed in three years for Thompson too, and that he isn’t the same flamethrower who reached heights higher than even his backcourt mate could match. That these Warriors aren’t The Warriors anymore, and that they’ll never be again.
Players leave and rivalries end, and the Cavs-Warriors rivalry as we knew it is long gone. That doesn’t mean it’s just another game, though. This year’s iteration of the Cavs is the best since those golden years. With Thompson back, the Warriors feel like The Warriors again. Just like that, it’s 2016 again, and I’m marveling at what the Cavs’ next chapter could hold while also praying that Thompson doesn’t light a continent on fire, because there’s really nothing else you can do.