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SAN FRANCISCO — As his name was introduced last in the starting lineup, Klay Thompson sat in his seat, stared ahead and soaked everything in.
Chase Center delivered one of its loudest roars, 941 days in the making.
After being out for nearly 31 months that have tested his physical and mental limits, the Golden State Warriors star guard made his long-awaited return to the floor and scored 17 points in 20 minutes in a 96-82 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Thompson missed some of his early shots short in the first half, before finding his range and getting hot in a brief spurt in the third quarter during which he hit three straight shots and scored seven of his points.
In his first game since Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals, Thompson finished 7-of-18 from the field, including going 3-for-8 from behind the arc. He also reached some milestones, reaching 12,000 career points and 1,800 made 3-pointers.
The highlight of his night was a thunderous driving dunk over two Cavaliers. Thompson drove past Jarrett Allen before taking two-plus years of frustration out with a one-handed dunk on both Lauri Markkanen and Dylan Windler with 2:56 left in the second quarter.
With that poster dunk, Thompson showed that he still has some of his explosiveness after tearing his left ACL in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors on June 13, 2019, and then tearing his right Achilles in November of 2020.
While Thompson’s athleticism was there, his shot needed some time to warm up. Likely overflowing with adrenaline, Thompson missed his first three 3-point attempts before burying one with 1:18 remaining in the half to the delight of a crowd that was ready to explode anytime Thompson did anything.
He opened the second half by making his first three shots, two from mid-range and a 3. After the Cavs took timeout with 9:08 to go in the third, a fired up Thompson ran over to a corner and mouthed a few words to the fans.
More than anything else, Sunday’s return might’ve been more nourishing for Thompson’s mental state than physical state.
“Tonight may be the most difficult game he plays in,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “It’s so different from a playoff game… 941 days, with all that frustration, and all that disappointment built in over time, it’s going to be incredibly emotional for the rest of us so I imagine what it would be like for Klay.”
Everything about Sunday felt out of the ordinary.
Kerr, who won three championships with Michael Jordan’s Bulls and was there the night Jordan returned from his first retirement in 1995, said this was going to be a game that he would never forget, one that “will stand out as one of the highlights of my entire basketball existence.”
“It feels surreal,” Kerr said before the game. “Just having our coaches meeting, and actually talking Klay, just felt great and it felt strange. It’s been so long. And the players felt it too in the walkthrough.”
About two hours before tip, Thompson sprinted out of the tunnel from the Warriors locker room and onto the floor to a huge applause from the fans who were already in the building watching Stephen Curry go through his warmup routine.
This was no typical pre-game warmup and the Warriors’ faithful knew it.
Thompson waved the fans on to cheer and clapped along with them. Like a boxer who just entered the ring, Thompson walked in a couple of circles as the fans kept cheering. Then Thompson cracked a smile before beginning his shooting routine. Fans cheered each of his first six makes from mid to short range.
When Thompson was done, he raised his arms in the air in appreciation of the love he received in his first pre-game warmup nearly 31 months after he tore his ACL.
When the starting five lineup was announced, the Warriors introduced Thompson last. One of the most popular players in Warriors franchise history was welcomed back like a hero.
Draymond Green was looking forward to this moment for weeks. He told Marc Spears of The Undefeated that he couldn’t sleep the night before Saturday’s practice knowing that he would be able to scrimmage with Thompson again before his return. But during warmup, Green experienced tightness in his left calf and was scratched moments before tip. But he still started the game before fouling and stopping play right after tip to honor Thompson’s return.
It didn’t take Thompson long to notch his first points ever in Chase Center, scoring on a driving runner in traffic 40 seconds into the game.
Thompson would make a 3-pointer not long before exiting to a standing ovation from the fans with 2:41 remaining in the game. A loud “We want Klay!” chant broke out after that.
Now that the return is out of the way, the Warriors will continue to ramp up Thompson and hope for another return shortly down the road. Center James Wiseman is scheduled to join the team on its upcoming road trip and be cleared for contact practice.
“We’re going to ease him into his role,” Kerr said of Thompson. “And that’ll build up over the next few weeks, but we’ll be very conservative to start.”