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NBA Finals

NBA Finals 2019: How Klay Thompson's return in Game 4 impacts the Toronto Raptors

Klay Thompson did not play in Game 3, but is expected to be in the lineup for Game 4.
Klay Thompson did not play in Game 3, but is expected to be in the lineup for Game 4. (Getty Images)

Klay Thompson will play in Game 4 of the NBA Finals for the Golden State Warriors after sitting out Game 3 with a strained hamstring sustained in the second half of Game 2.

His effectiveness on both ends will be the decisive factor in determining whether the Raptors head back to Toronto with a chance to clinch the series in five games or if the Warriors even up the series 2-2.

Here are four ways that he impacts the Toronto Raptors and the series as a whole.

Guarding Kawhi Leonard

One of the subplots of Game 3 was the ease with which Kawhi Leonard ended up with 30 points. Though it felt as if Kyle Lowry or Danny Green hit big shot after big shot, it was Leonard that finished as Toronto's leading scorer as he delivered one of the quietest 30-point games you'll ever see on this big of a stage.

Leonard has reached the rarified air occupied by the biggest of stars - LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant - where even on nights it feels as if he's not taking over still finds a way to fill up the box score.

Thompson is vitally important for Golden State's defensive strategy on Leonard.

An All-Defense selection this past season, Thompson matched up primarily on Leonard whenever he was on the floor in Games 1 and 2. When not on Leonard, Thompson spent considerable time on Kyle Lowry.

The biggest adjustment in Game 3 with Thompson's absence pertained to Draymond Green. The anchor and unofficial captain of Golden State's swarming defence, Green was matched up defensively on Leonard 31 times in Game 3 according to NBA.com's matchup data after doing so just 16 times in Games 1 and 2 combined.

When matched up on Leonard, Green has been largely ineffective as the Raptors have posted an offensive rating of 144.7 over the first three games of the series. Whenever Green's been on anyone else, that number drops all the way down to 109.0. He's perhaps the best help defender in the entire league and one of the reasons that Thompson's availability is so crucial.

Without Thompson, the Warriors don't really have anyone outside of Green and Andre Iguodala that stands a chance against Leonard. Thompson's ability to play extended minutes across from Leonard enables Green to get back to playing free safety which helps Golden State swarm, trap and tighten up rotations. All of those open shots Toronto walked into in Game 3 were largely a result of the Warriors desperately trying to make up for Thompson's absence.

Making Danny Green's life more difficult

After shooting just 4-23 from beyond the arc in the Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, Danny Green has found his shooting stroke so far in the NBA Finals. Though he shot well on a smaller sample in Games 1 and 2, he busted loose in the Game 3 win as he shot 6-10 from the 3-point line.

It's not a coincidence that Green had the juice to find open space and get off cleaner looks without Thompson on the floor.

Over the first two games of the series, nobody spent more time chasing around Thompson than Green, a task that takes a ton of energy. According to Second Spectrum's tracking data, no Raptors player moved faster on defence than Green did over the first two games.

When he wasn't on Thompson, he was on the other Splash Brother. Those are two of the hardest and most unique defensive assignments in the entire league, both of which require not only a tremendous amount of physical activity but also mental focus. All told, Green spent 65% of his time on the floor over the first two games matched up against one of those two.

His life was far easier in Game 3 as he spent 31% of his time matched up on Curry and as a result, didn't move as fast or as far on defence. Perhaps not consistently chasing around the Splash Brothers gave Green the burst to come up with that huge chase-down block on Quinn Cook in the second half, a play that perhaps preserved a shift in momentum at a point in the game where Golden State typically takes off.

Perhaps conserving energy on one end led to Green's breakout performance on the other. Though the Raptors won by 14 and were seemingly never threatened in the second half, if Green goes 2-10 instead of 6-10, we're potentially talking about a vastly different story heading into Game 4. Green's 10 attempts from beyond the arc were tied for the most he's ever taken in a playoff game.

Release valve

The Splash Brothers are the two best shooters in the world. You can even make an argument they're the two best shooters in NBA history.

Needless to say, removing one from the equation is a very big deal.

Stephen Curry erupted for 47 points in the greatest game of his postseason career in Game 3. Outside of Curry, the Warriors didn't do much from the outside as the rest of the team combined to shoot 6-22 from beyond the arc with three of those makes coming in the final six and a half minutes of the fourth quarter with the game largely decided. Outside of that closing stretch, Warriors not named Curry shot just 3-16 from 3.

The amount of attention that Curry draws opens up opportunities for everyone else, opportunities that Golden State was unable to take advantage of in Game 3. His teammates shot just 2-7 from beyond the arc off of his passes. Not only would the Warriors benefit from having Thompson the one receiving those looks instead of the likes of Alfonzo McKinnie, but he also makes it harder to send help which then opens up more space for Curry to drive to the rim or get free for clean floaters and mid-range looks.

Either directly or indirectly, Thompson serves as the ultimate safety release valve to help take pressure off of the two-time MVP. The Raptors will have to be much smarter in helping onto Stephen Curry in Game 4 with Thompson back in the mix.

Another creator

Without Kevin Durant, it's Klay Thompson who runs the show whenever Stephen Curry needs a break. How involved is he in Golden State's offence? Over the first two games of the series, he actually had more touches in the frontcourt than Curry (86 and 69, respectively). Only Draymond Green, who often facilitates everything from the top of the key both as a primary initiator and off of two-man actions with Curry, touched the ball more in the frontcourt (108) than Thompson over the first two games.

Thompson's absence in Game 3 meant a far heavier dose of players handling the ball far more than they're accustomed. Here's a breakdown of how often players have touched the ball so far in this series. Before you suggest garbage time throws these out of whack, remember that Curry didn't leave the floor for good in Game 3 until there was just 1:37 left in the game.

Front Court Touches in NBA Finals
Player Games 1-2 Game 3
Draymond Green 54.0 43
Stephen Curry 34.5 47
Klay Thompson 43.0 0
Andre Iguodala 30.0 32
DeMarcus Cousins 29.5 27
Shaun Livingston 22.0 20
Quinn Cook 17.0 27
Jonas Jerebko 11.0 14
Andrew Bogut 7.0 18
Alfonzo McKinnie 6.0 21

One of the biggest false narratives about Thompson's game is that he's a catch-and-shoot guy and nothing else. This is after all a player that once scored 60 points while dribbling only 11 times. While it's true he's perhaps the deadliest catch-and-shoot player in the league with a lightning quick release, Thompson can do so much more.

Not only did Thompson rank second on the team in paint touches over the first two games of this series, but he also ranked among the top three on the team in both drives and elbow touches. He's got a vast array of skills as a scorer that helps differentiate Golden State's offence and create looks at the end of the shot clock when everything else breaks down.

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