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Warriors' Klay Thompson to return vs. Cavaliers on Sunday

The five-time All-Star rejoins the Warriors, back in championship contention, after rehabbing a pair of major leg injuries over the past 2 1/2 years.

Mark Medina

Mark Medina

Klay Thompson talks with Dennis Scott about his past injuries, the recovery process and what lies ahead.

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No longer will Klay Thompson nurse frustration with remaining sidelined on the bench. No longer will Thompson’s source of happiness stem from enjoying the outdoors or his dog.

Thompson returns to the court when the Golden State Warriors (29-9) host the Cleveland Cavaliers (21-17) on Sunday (8:30 ET, NBA TV) at San Francisco’s Chase Center, marking the first time in 941 days the former five-star All-Star will appear in a basketball game after nursing season-ending injuries to his left knee (2019-20) and right Achilles tendon (2020-21).

Thompson did not speak following Saturday’s practice, which entailed scrimmaging with his teammates. Warriors coach Steve Kerr joked that he forgot to talk to Thompson about his status after practice before encouraging reporters to monitor their phones moments before Thompson shared the news on social media.

Nonetheless, Kerr predicted that Thompson’s return will “be one of the most emotional games that any of us would ever be a part of” both as a former NBA player (1988-2002) and the Warriors’ head coach (2014-present). So much that Kerr likened Thompson’s return to when Michael Jordan returned from his first retirement from the NBA on March 19, 1995 against the Indiana Pacers on the road after spending the past 1½ years playing in the Chicago White Sox’s minor-league system. Kerr played with Jordan in Chicago during the team’s second three-peat run (1996-98).

“I have no doubt when Klay walks onto the floor for the first time, I will never forget that game,” Kerr said. “It will stand out as one of the highlights of my entire basketball existence just because of who Klay is and how much he has meant to our franchise and to the Bay area and to me personally and to his teammates. He’s everybody’s favorite guy and we’ve all seen him suffer for 2½ years. It’ll be very emotional.”

The Warriors have handled Thompson with care to ensure that he does not suffer a major injury for a third consecutive season. The Warriors cleared Thompson for full contact drills in mid-November and had him train with the team’s G League affiliate in Santa Cruz. Thompson also scrimmaged with the Warriors’ starters last week during an unplanned practice in Denver after their game against the Nuggets was postponed, something Kerr described as “a crucial milestone.”

Kerr added that Thompson has “looked great” in all scrimmages, while Warriors forward Juan Toscano-Anderson added Thompson scored 12 points in a 43-second span in one of those games. But even if Kerr plans to start Thompson out of respect for the five-time All-Stars credentials and skills, Thompson will face an unspecified minutes restriction.

“It’ll take a little time for Klay to settle in and for our team to settle in,” Kerr said. “There’s a lot going on. A return from 2½ years. It’s going to take some time for him to find his rhythm and build his conditioning and stamina and our team has to get used to the new rotations and new roles, that sort of thing. That’s the point of the season.”

The point of Thompson’s return against Cleveland also held a special meaning. All parties remained adamant that Thompson would first play in a Warriors home game. As Thompson said recently, “I want to play in front of our fans. They deserve this. First time in two years, they deserve to see me in the home unis.”

The last time Warriors fans saw Thompson in uniform coincided with both the Warriors’ decisive Game 6 loss to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals and the lowest moment of his 10-year NBA career.

On June 13, 2019, Thompson tore the ACL in his left knee at the end of the third quarter after then-Raptors guard Danny Green contested a fast-break layup from behind. Thompson landed awkwardly on his left leg before falling to the ground and grimacing in paint. After teammates helped him to the locker room, Thompson returned to the court to make two free throws. But he left the court afterwards and soon was taken to a nearby hospital for imaging. It was there that Thompson learned the severity of his injury.

It was only the beginning of Thompson’s adversity. After spending the subsequent year rehabbing his left knee, Thompson ruptured his right Achilles tendon on the day of the NBA Draft while scrimmaging with other NBA players in Los Angeles. Thompson said the injury happened after taking a two-dribble pull-up, a move he said he performed “100 times a day.”

The Warriors had won three NBA championships in five consecutive Finals appearances, partly because of Thompson’s outside shooting, perimeter defense and team-first attitude. The Warriors plunged to the NBA Draft lottery (2019-20) in a season that also coincided with Kevin Durant’s free-agent departure to Brooklyn, Stephen Curry’s right thumb injury that sidelined him for all but five games as well as Andre Iguodala’s trade that eventually brought him to Miami.

During the 2020-21 season, the Warriors then appeared in the NBA Play-In Tournament by relying on Curry’s MVP-caliber campaign and Green’s defense while experiencing hiccups with rookie center James Wiseman before he suffered a knee injury of his own, an ailment that has kept him sidelined.

Thompson, meanwhile, described the past year as “the worst year of my life.” Not only did Thompson deal with two season-ending injuries, he also struggled navigating through the pandemic, losing his grandmother and stomaching the tragedy of Kobe and Gianna Bryant, who were among nine people to die in a helicopter crash nearly two years ago. Still, those in the organization praised Thompson for staying disciplined with his rehab and keeping a positive attitude. He often spent time on his boat, reading, playing chess or playing with his dog, Rocco, to cope with his lengthy absence.

As for this season, the Warriors (29-9) have the second-best record in the Western Conference for various reasons. Curry and Draymond Green remain healthy and in All-Star form. The Warriors reunited with Iguodala. And they have further developed a handful of quality role players, including Jordan Poole, Jonathan Kuminga, Otto Porter Jr. and Kevon Looney.

“We have a such a great, deep team that I don’t need to come back and shoulder a huge load,” said Thompson, who recently predicted he’ll initially play 18 minutes a game. “We’re so deep and talented I can ease into things, which I’m really grateful for.”

The Warriors have expressed gratitude for having Thompson, who became a five-time All-Star by becoming one of the NBA’s best two-way players. That begs two questions.

First, can Thompson still remain an elite shooter?

“The shot, I never worry about,” Thompson said.  “The hardest part when you come back from a long layoff is the timing and the rhythm of the game and the conditioning aspect.”

Second, can Thompson still remain an elite defender?

“I feel really good,” Thompson said. “Honestly, I give myself credit and give the training staff credit. There’s times throughout the lengthy process that you really doubt yourself if you’ll be the same type of player. When I come back, I feel like myself and feel great. I feel like it will take a few games or a few weeks to be an All-Star again.”

In just over 24 hours, the Warriors will see how that process with Thompson will begin to play out.

“He’s Klay Thompson; he’s a Hall-of-Famer,” Kerr said. “The question is really about how long it’ll take to find his rhythm, to really gain his confidence and timing and all that. There’s no predicting that. He just needs reps. Our team need reps with him. We’ll let it unfold naturally.”

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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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