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How The Warriors Unleashed Klay Thompson

For just a while, it seemed like maybe, just maybe, we were headed for the unthinkable.

The Houston Rockets opened up a 17-point edge after one period, couldn’t miss and led the Golden State Warriors by 10 going into half of Game 6 on Saturday night, a contest Golden State had to have to keep its season alive. Based on how the last two games had gone — with Houston coming out on the winning end of two close games — it would have been fair to think that this might be it for the Warriors. Even without injured star point guard Chris Paul, Houston came out of the gate scorching, hitting 8-of-12 from distance in the opening quarter while the Warriors connected on just 1-of-7 from behind the three-point arc.

But then Klay Thompson happened, and the Oracle Arena crowd came to life. Thompson and Stephen Curry caught fire and helped Golden State land yet another patented third-period haymaker — one that would daze the Rockets more than in Game 4 — en route to outscoring Houston by a ledger of 93 to 47 from the end of the first quarter to the end of the contest. And we found ourselves with a Western Conference finals series knotted at three games apiece instead.

Thompson’s second-half outburst — reminiscent of his landscape-changing Game 6 showing against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the West finals two years ago — lifted the Warriors to a 115-86 victory Saturday, giving the league two Game 7s this holiday weekend.

And while it’s easy enough to say that the Warriors simply shot better Saturday, there was a bit more to it than just that.

For starters, Golden State, in an effort to force the Rockets into defensive catch-22s, has begun leaning considerably on pick-and-pop sets in which Thompson comes over to set a screen for either Curry or Durant. In fact, that play — which the Warriors ran seven times in Saturday’s win alone — has generated far more points in these six games (42) than it did during the entire 82-game regular season that just passed, according to data from Second Spectrum and NBA Advanced Stats. All told, Golden State has had Thompson screen for either Curry or Durant in a pick-and-pop scenario 7.4 times per 100 possessions against Houston this postseason, up from less than once every 100 plays during the regular season.

Utilizing this play more than a handful of times presents a significant shift in two key ways. First off, the Warriors — with their against-the-grain style — don’t really run all that many pick-and-roll sets to begin with, instead orchestrating a beautiful, yet chaotic web of off-ball screens that works to free up the team’s historic stable of sharpshooters. Beyond that, even when Golden State does use more traditional screen-and-roll sets, it usually does so with Draymond Green, who makes use of all the attention shown to Curry to operate with downhill, 4-on-3 advantages.

Being able to go to that play — and averaging 1.45 points per time they use it — has helped unclog what, at times, has become a stagnant offense during this series. Back during Game 5, a miked-up Steve Kerr was shown imploring Durant to move the ball earlier and more often to stop the switchy Houston defense from clamping down. The two-man game with Thompson helps facilitate that, as it forces defenders to either seal off Durant or Curry’s driving path, or to fan out toward Thompson — who has by far the NBA’s quickest jumpshot release — at the arc.

Beyond Thompson’s breakout showing for 35 points, a couple of other things stood out. Among them: Houston’s 21 turnovers. The turnovers might merely be a problematic one-game blip, but they may be cause for concern in light of likely NBA MVP James Harden — who ran out of gas down the stretch of the Rockets’ playoff run in 2017 — being asked to carry the load again. If Paul can’t play through his hamstring injury in Game 7, Harden will need a ton of support to close the series out.

It’s unclear whether he can expect any of that help to come from officials. Harden, the NBA’s perennial leader in free-throw attempts, didn’t get to the line at all after halftime despite some plays that looked as if they’d draw a whistle because of the apparent contact that’d taken place. This sequence, with the Warriors up by 7 points with about 10 minutes to play, stood out in particular.

But at this stage of the game, with Houston being this close to taking down the reigning champs, Harden and the Rockets seemingly have to know that no one is going to hand them anything.

Instead, they’ll have to go in and take what they perceive to be their rightful place on the NBA throne. And that may very well take everything they have Monday night, especially now that Golden State appears to have found its groove on the offensive end of the floor.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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