SAN FRANCISCO — Klay Thompson and Steph Curry won’t say they get particularly fired up to play the Phoenix Suns. But cameras and stats say otherwise.
It was just four months ago in Phoenix that some feisty words with Devin Booker got Thompson ejected for the first time in his career — something about Thompson having “four rings” to Booker’s zero when when Booker decided to rub a Suns runaway victory in a struggling Thompson’s face.
So it didn’t feel coincidental that Thompson erupted for 33 points with eight three-pointers, a handful over Booker’s hands, in the first half of the Warriors’ electrifying win over the Suns.
Doesn’t Thompson get any extra juice from sticking a W on a Phoenix Suns team that beat them three times this year?
“No,” Thompson said. “I think when you have a hot shooting stretch like that, it tends to let out your emotions and it feels good.”
Does Curry feel a little oomph? Cameras caught him clearly yelling at Chris Paul “this ain’t 2014 no more” after bullying him at the rim for an and-1 bucket. Thompson, seated next to Curry at the media podium for a rare dual press conference, threw his head back and mouthed a “wow” when he heard about the throwback his longtime teammate uttered in the heat of competition.
“It’s all competition,” Curry said. “Played against him for so many years, the love I got for him. Our history. It’s just competition, back and forth.”
Tempered egos and perspective are to be expected hours after the final buzzer; no need to get petty after a win.
But those fiery moments show these Warriors aren’t afraid to polish off old chips on their shoulder to find that extra edge. It’s a tactic plenty of all-time greats use: Michael Jordan made up stories about opposing players in his head to manufacture stakes for a revenge game, as he explained his “The Last Dance” documentary.
After the NBA Finals last year, Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green referenced all the doubters’ words — snippets from social media comments and ESPN talking heads — they collected in their minds as fuel to win the ‘chip. The doubt he collected inspired Curry to exclaim, “What are they going to say now?” after the title was secured.
Curry’s 2014 reference isn’t from a made up moment, though Paul told reporters after Monday’s game he had no recollection of what happened in 2014.
“Y’all are going to have to ask (Curry),” Paul said. “I don’t know what happened in 2014.”
Before the four championship titles, Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers were the Curry-era Warriors’ first rival and greatest obstacle in the West. Paul and Blake Griffin bested the Warriors in seven games in the Western Conference’s first round that year. It was the last time the Warriors have made the playoffs and been eliminated before the Finals.
Curry and Paul have come head-to-head plenty since. Paul joined James Harden and a Houston Rockets team built specifically to beat the Warriors (unsuccessfully) during the Kevin Durant years. The now-35-year-old has perched himself on top of the NBA world since 2014, but he keeps access to emotions from that year he was down.
Thompson has emerged as the best version of himself since that ejection and early-season struggle. He didn’t hit another 3 in the second half and, more importantly, didn’t hunt for any to keep his hot streak going. Thompson played within himself, made extra passes and defending Booker well.
“I just think Klay has been in such a great place for several months,” coach Steve Kerr said. “The two early Phoenix losses, he struggled and showed frustration. I know it felt good for him to have that first half regardless of who we were playing.”
It’s clear Thompson grappled too intimately with the reality of never playing basketball again while he rehabbed two major injuries. Fear of taking the game for granted fuels him as much as those who doubted that he’d ever play to the top of his game again.
The Suns represented the West in the NBA Finals and Booker was the star scorer during one year of Thompson’s absence. Perhaps Thompson is telling Booker he’ll still need to wait his turn.