Each morning when Zaza Pachulia walks into his office at Chase Center, he glances at a newspaper framed on his wall. It’s from May 2017 and has a game story about the Warriors’ 102-91 playoff win over the Jazz. But what he cares about is next to the game story: a box score.
Pachulia, whose contributions in two seasons with the Warriors were seldom reflected by counting stats, had more points (seven) than Klay Thompson (six) in about a third of the minutes, an occasion so rare that Warriors vice president of communications Raymond Ridder framed the next day’s paper as if the Warriors had won the championship.
After the game, Pachulia bragged to reporters, posted a picture of himself and Thompson on Instagram with the caption, “Historical night” and ribbed his teammate for the next two days. Then Thompson scored 21 points, to Pachulia’s two, as Golden State eliminated Utah from the postseason.
“It didn’t happen too many times,” Pachulia said in a phone interview this week, “and, whenever it happened, I just took advantage of it. I had to let everybody know.”
A month after that game, the Warriors defeated the Cavaliers in their third of five straight Finals trips. This was the peak of the Warriors’ dynasty. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant headlined perhaps the greatest offense of all time. Meanwhile, Thompson’s steady two-way presence was just as vital. Now, any hopes of the Warriors returning to title contention depend on how Thompson returns from two straight season-ending injuries.
After tearing his ACL in Game 6 of the 2019 Finals, Thompson experienced a devastating setback in November, when he tore his right Achilles tendon in an off-season workout in Los Angeles. In all, Thompson will miss two full seasons in the middle of his prime. With a pin in their title chase another year, the Warriors miss Thompson’s presence, but maybe not as much as he misses playing.
“Unfortunately, I’m not playing,” Thompson, 30, told NBC Sports Bay Area Saturday night, when he joined the broadcast during the Warriors’ win over the Pistons. “It kills me every day, but I plan on playing for a long time, and I don’t want to have any mishaps come after this rehab.”
Thompson may find inspiration in watching Durant this season. Durant, who tore his Achilles in the 2019 Finals, is playing at an MVP level for the Nets after missing the entire 2019-20 season. Durant’s recovery is an indication that players are rebounding from an injury that had previously been known to derail careers. Unlike Durant, however, Thompson is coming off not one, but two serious lower-body injuries.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. With Curry returning from a broken hand that sidelined him most of last season, Andrew Wiggins added to a core that included Draymond Green and the No. 2 pick to add a talented rookie, Golden State figured to vault back to title contention after a 15-50 season rife with injuries.
Then, a few hours before the Nov. 18 draft, Warriors general manager Bob Myers got the call.
“I was actually sitting next to Bob and suddenly his face changed,” said Pachulia, now a consultant in the Warriors’ front office. “He should be excited about the process and about the position we were in, but I didn’t like the look on his face and his reaction when he answered the phone.
“He was just listening and (asked the person on the other end), ‘Is it bad?’” Pachulia continued. “It was silent in the room. It was silent. And then we heard about Klay. Obviously you don’t exactly know what the diagnosis was, but you could feel that something was not right.”
Before Thompson’s injury, the Warriors had the fifth-best odds to win the 2021 championship and ESPN ranked them the sixth-best team in the NBA. After, the Warriors’ odds faded to a tier below the Raptors and Mavericks, and ESPN dropped them out of the top 10.
When Curry found out Thompson tore his Achilles, as he told The Undefeated, there were “a lot of tears.”
This is someone with whom Curry had played for eight seasons, gone to five Finals and won three. On the court, they were the “Splash Bros.” — the greatest 3-point shooting backcourt of all time. While Curry had his share of injuries early in his career, Thompson was a tank, never missing more than two weeks with an injury until 2019. Thompson didn’t need high-tech gadgets like compression boots and cryotherapy chambers to have a “Wolverine”-type ability to recover quickly. He’d be as fresh in overtime as he was in the first quarter and would play back-to-backs without missing a beat.
“Some people are just built that way,” Pachulia said. “They’re just strong, tough. That’s what Klay is. God gave him a naturally good body.”
Pachulia recalled a time in San Antonio when Thompson fell awkwardly and he feared Thompson might be seriously injured, only for Thompson to brush himself off and run back on defense.
“Some players would lay there for a minute and shake it off, make it a little bit dramatic,” Pachulia said. “Klay never did that. He’d fall, it looked nasty but, guess what? He’d get up right away and continue to play basketball. He’s got that type of mentality.”
Another example: During that fateful Game 6, Thompson made two free throws on a torn ACL before heading the locker room. Those were the last points Thompson has scored in nearly two years.
After beginning his rehabilitation process in Southern California, Thompson is back with the team. He has been a staple behind the Warriors’ bench at home games and will travel with the Warriors for the first time this week when the Warriors begin a four-game trip through Dallas and San Antonio.
“You can tell when his presence wasn’t there the first couple months,” said Kevon Looney. “Now that he’s back, he’s always a lot of fun, he’s giving a lot of pointers to the young guys.”
Soon, Thompson, who is still in a walking boot, will begin mobility work on his ankle. Although he wishes he could play, he’s guiding a new-look roster during practices and film sessions. These things can help fill time during the doldrums of rehab, but they also serve as a stark reminder of the fact that he can’t aid his team on the court.
“It’s got a double-edged sword,” said Curry, who missed 60 of 65 possible games last season. “You want to be around the team and you want to be a part of the vibe and just the energy in the locker room, in the weight room, on the practice court and obviously during games, but then when you get so close to it, you miss it more.
“That’s the biggest thing. Physically, you have a long way to go and mentally staying sharp, watching film, giving guys some pointers on what they see. That’ll help him transition back when his body’s ready.”
At 11-10, the Warriors this season hope to make the playoffs, maybe even avoid the play-in tournament in the Western Conference. Curry, 32, is playing at an All-Star level, averaging 28.2 points on 46.9% shooting (41.4% from 3-point range), 5.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists.
Like Thompson, Curry believes he can play at a high level for several years, remarking on Monday, “I don’t have any concerns about falling off anytime soon.”
If Curry maintains this production, Green stays healthy and Wiseman takes a leap, the Warriors could make a Finals run as soon as next season. Golden State also has Wiggins, thriving in his new role, and Minnesota’s future first-round pick that is top-three protected in 2021 and unprotected in 2022.
“Right now, who’s to say we can’t put pieces together?” Curry said. “I think we’re in a good spot right now. Let’s put it that way.”
But the key to rising up the ranks is Thompson returning at, or near, full strength.
“If someone can bounce back from this injury, I’d bet it’s Klay,” Pachulia said. “He’s in good spirits.”
During Saturday night’s broadcast, Thompson was reminded of one of his greatest box scores: When on Oct. 29, 2018, he set the single-game record for 3-pointers made in a game with 14.
Asked if he thought his record would be broken as the NBA continues to trend more toward 3-point shooting, Thompson said, “That’s probably going to be broken here in the next few years. Steph Curry — it’s up to Steph. Zach LaVine was close. But I might break it again, I don’t know.
“I don’t think that’s going to last that long.”
Contributed by local news sources