Klay Thompson deals with closing on the bench as Warriors outlast the Nets

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NEW YORK — Draymond Green’s usual spot in the visiting locker room at Barclays Center is in the far corner. Klay Thompson’s location is between Green’s locker and the shower. On Green’s postgame path back to the locker room Monday night, he saw a group of reporters crowding Thompson and immediately assumed the topic.

“What they talking about — you didn’t play to finish the game?” Green blurted, directed more at the reporters than Thompson. “I got benched Game 5 of the Finals. Who the f— cares?”

Thompson’s interview was only a question deep at that point. The Golden State Warriors had just defeated the Brooklyn Nets 109-98, a needed road win that included 30 minutes, 8 points, six rebounds and a couple of steals for Thompson. He made four of his nine shots and turned down a handful of tough ones, exhibiting some patience. He was decent enough, better than he’d been recently.

But Warriors coach Steve Kerr took Thompson out with 7:19 left and didn’t go back to him. Kerr instead closed with Gui Santos, who entered the game with 61 career NBA minutes. Santos also closed over Moses Moody, Dario Saric and other available veteran options. But those two aren’t Thompson, the future Hall of Famer and proud franchise legend who has been open and stubborn about his fight against time.

So this was a particularly notable choice and the reason Green assumed Thompson was getting bombarded with questions about it even though he hadn’t been yet.

“It feels like you’re about to (ask him),” Green said. “So I answered it for you.”

Twenty minutes earlier, a satisfied Kerr credited Santos and Brandin Podziemski for an energy boost to close out the win. Podziemski, who closed over Thompson against the Memphis Grizzlies earlier in the trip, had 15 points and 11 rebounds, a third straight double-double, the first Warriors player to do so since DeMarcus Cousins in 2019 (a pretty telling stat).

Santos, the night’s surprise, changed the energy upon entering in the second quarter, cutting hard, diving on the floor, using his size and, as coaches tell it, always doing what he was told with full effort. Kerr mentioned Santos’ persistent slashing as particularly impactful in breaking down Brooklyn’s switching scheme. So when he played well in the fourth, Kerr stuck with him.

“If the group’s playing well, you stay with it,” Kerr said.

Kerr hasn’t always abided by that strategy this season, maintaining a continued level of patience early in the season while Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Kevon Looney weathered slumps. He trusted that veteran starting lineup, believing in earned equity, sitting Moody and Jonathan Kuminga even at times when performance suggested he shouldn’t.

But their worsening record eventually tilted him in the other direction. He flipped his rotations. Kuminga has leaped to the top of his pecking order. Looney’s minutes are vanishing. Thompson has been left on the bench in crunchtime a few times now, and Kerr said in Atlanta the other night that he won’t hesitate to keep closing with Podziemski if he keeps playing well.

“There’s a spotlight on (Klay) because of how great he is, because of the career he’s had,” Kerr said. “I don’t think that should be the story tonight. The story should be that we won a game on the road against a team playing well. We had multiple guys step in: Lester (Quinones), Moses, Gui. That’s the story tonight.”

The possession that helped seal it came with five minutes left. The Warriors were up by 9. Stephen Curry strode into the lane and missed a layup. But Santos, from the back side, faked out Mikal Bridges and slid into the mix for an offensive rebound. He missed the put-back but out-hustled the Nets again for a third chance.

The kickout led to a Curry 3. It was a miss. But Podziemski skied in this time and leaped over Nic Claxton to secure his 10th rebound of the night and the Warriors’ third offensive rebound of the possession. Frustrated, Claxton threw Podziemski to the ground. A flagrant was called. Claxton was ejected. The rookie hit one free throw. Curry made a layup. It was a 3-point, 34-second possession that demoralized the Nets.

That is the type of sequence that’ll incentivize a coach to stick with two younger players, especially for a team that has lacked the necessary effort and focus to edge across the finish line during various late-game losses this season. This win pushed the Warriors within a game of 10th place and 3 1/2 games of eighth. They’re desperate.

But the wider story, despite Green’s personal history lesson and Kerr’s pleas, is Thompson. He has failed to make half of his shots in nine consecutive games and is shooting a career low from the field (41.5 percent) and from deep (37.4 percent). Kerr has no intentions of pulling him from the starting lineup, and he is still a common option to close.

But option is much different from guarantee. That’s been a difficult reality for Thompson to accept, but, he says, he’s there. Kerr first did it in Phoenix in December. He’s now done it in two of the past three games and has made it clear it’s on the table nightly.

“I’ve accepted it,” Thompson said. “You can be mad. But I’m not going to be mad. I’m happy for these young guys. Yeah, we won. It’s hard to get wins in this league. … It’s all good. These guys played great. Gui played great. BP. Jonathan. At the end of the day, winning trumps all.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s a simple adjustment.

“Yeah, you kidding me?” Thompson said. “To go from one of the best players … it’s hard for anybody. I’ll be honest with you: It’s really hard.”

(Photo of Klay Thompson and Cameron Johnson: Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)

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