Klay Thompson’s ejection was less about Devin Booker and more about his journey and internal doubt

Klay Thompson might be the most chill star player any league has ever seen. He enjoys boat rides with his bull dog, evades celebrity companions, and would score every basket without dribbling in a perfect world. Klay is the quintessential calm vibe.

He competes like no other but rarely ever comes out of character. But Tuesday night against Devin Booker and the Suns, Klay was so far removed from his normal demeanor.

Steve Kerr brushed it off as competitive banter between two guards who have had battles since Booker’s rookie season. But underlying the head to head battle with Booker is a Hall of Fame player who might have to face that his best days are behind him.

Almost from the tip off Klay and Booker were jawing at one another. Before long, Thompson was in Booker’s face. Then shoving Suns forward Mikal Bridges off him. Then being held back by his teammates, mainly Stephen Curry and assistant coach Chris DeMarco. Then yelling some magic words to referee Ed Malloy, prompting the first ejection of Thompson’s career. It took 796 games, including playoffs.

As Thompson left the court Tuesday night at Footprint Center, in the third quarter of what became a 134-105 Warriors’ loss to Phoenix, he hurled more barbs toward the home bench. He even pointed to his left hand, where figuratively and emphatically, he has four championship rings to floss. Four more than the entire Suns’ organization was surely the point.

“Four rings,” Booker said after the game, sharing what Thompson kept saying. “He repeated it over and over.”

But this wasn’t about Booker. Not entirely anyway.

Beneath all the commotion in the Warriors’ second regular-season loss in four games is the lingering internal battle Thompson is waging. This is a reminder his journey isn’t over.

Yes, he made it back to action after missing two seasons. Yes, he won another title and was a significant piece in his first year back. Yes, he had an offseason free of rehabilitation. But the road to reclaim his game, and the fear his name brought, is a winding one and unique in its resistance.

Tuesday was a window into why this can be grueling, and why it’s still arguably the challenge of his career. Thompson had two points on 1-for-8 shooting, missing all five of his 3-point attempts, another rough offensive performance.

Considering his history of battling with Booker, Thompson probably came into this game hoping to shoot the lights out and not let a rival one-up him. But No. 11 isn’t in full control of those powers. He’s still working his way back. Still scaling the statue of his own legend. Still determined to prove his conviction is absolutely true.

Game 6 Klay. Killa Klay. Best 2 way guard. 60 points on 11 dribbles. Those are all ways Klay has been mentioned in the past. Extra emphasis on the past. Coming off back to back brutal injuries, Klay has been a shell of himself. The championship definitely helped heal some wounds but the great ones are never content. I’m sure last years success combined with the personal shooting and defending struggles of Klay had him pondering if he would ever regain his form.

Coming into this season that was probably the goal, to be that aforementioned Killa Klay and ultimately Game 6 Klay as the team goal shapes.

But none of that has gone to plan here in the very early stages of the season.

He wants so badly to summon that player. No sweeter rebuttal than the sound of a net splashing. But part of the frustration that boiled over in rare fashion Tuesday is he can’t summon him right now, try as he might.

The Warriors are confident Klay will find his former self, and in turn find themselves a 5th championship.

He just isn’t there yet. And as long as he’s not there, it leaves room for the wondering and worrying about whether he will get there. He is, after all, 32 years old with two serious injuries robbing him of valuable prime years. Doubt would be normal. It takes a reservoir of confidence and defiance to ward off something so natural, to believe enough to expect.

“I have 100 percent, unconditional confidence in him,” Curry said. “But to get there, nobody can really understand what he’s been through, even on top of a championship situation. All of the mental hurdles you have to continue to work on. You respect it because, again, none of us can imagine what that two years looked like. Just need to get him in the right atmosphere for a consistent amount of time and that stuff usually comes out. Because he’s a winner. So, that’s my confidence from start to finish with him. No difference this year.”

If tribulation produces patience, it would stand to reason this part would be easier for Thompson. Returning from a torn ACL followed by a torn Achilles sounds grueling enough to make this current anguish seem bearable. But patience is virtuous because it’s not so easily mastered.

Sometimes, he said during an interview before the season, he would get so mad inside.

“I want to apologize to anyone who was around me in those 24 months,” Thompson said during the preseason interview. “Because I was an angry person for a while. I was mad at the world. I had a quick fuse about little stuff and I was so angry. I didn’t know how to channel it.”

He learned to cut Klay Thompson some slack. He reminded himself what he’d just gone through, and overcame, was real. He affirmed within how returning after 941 days away from his passion was on its own an incredible feat, and he earned grace as he grinds back toward the All-Star he is certain still lives inside him.

Such will require more fortitude. More patience. More belief. Imagine summoning all the mental toughness necessary to clear 941 hurdles, only to end up needing more mental toughness. Because the hurdles still keep coming. It sounds infuriating. Thompson’s strategy is to counter the frustration with appreciation and trust.

“Whatever bad thoughts and feelings I’m having,” Thompson explained, “it’ll distract me from that and kind of re-center me and allow me to take it all in and be present with the moment. Coming back from injury, you cannot second-guess yourself. You have to believe you are who you’ve always been.”

He heard all the talking. About the decline of his defense during the early part of his return. About the lower efficiency of his 3-point shooting. Oh, and he can’t stand when people ask him if he’ll return to the old Klay. It’s irritating. There is no Old Klay. There is no New Klay. There is only Klay. The one he and his team knows intimately. The one who some others seem to have forgotten. His essence hasn’t changed. His talent, his love for the big moments, his maniacal obsession with the winning, hasn’t been altered by his injuries. He is who he’s always been. He has to believe that. That’s what he’s determined to show you. Show us in the media. Show Booker, and any other player with the nerve. Show everybody.

Show himself.

So far this season, he’s 8-for-28 from deep. He can play defense and make nifty passes and do all the little things. But Thompson is a shooter. It’s who he is. So he is never fully himself until that part is on par with his expectations.

He thought the title ended his journey back. He presumed the struggle washed off in the Moët shower in Boston last June. It wasn’t.

“I learned that it takes a lot to knock me down,” Thompson said. “Whether it’s the injuries, the shooting slumps, the lessened athleticism. I’m still gonna get out there and I’m still gonna make an impact on a championship-level team. So I’m very proud of myself for what I accomplished. But I still really want more. I still want to be great. And I don’t want to use my past injury experiences as a crutch into where I need to go. I might not get from point A to point B as fast as I once did. But, shoot, I can still make shots and get stops like the best of them.”

He put his trust in Rick Celebrini, the Warriors’ director of sports medicine and performance, before. He banked on his work ethic and stubbornness before. He got through the dark nights, nagging doubts and shooting slumps before. He will get through this. He’s sure of it.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard.

Until he gets back there, until he’s shooting it like one of the all-time greats and defending at a high level, until he’s snatching hope from opponents in the playoffs and saving the Warriors from despair, until he’s again creating epic moments, he’ll have to find more patience and cleave to the confidence of past glory. And when people start talking like he isn’t Klay Thompson anymore, he’s fully ready to remind them of his bedazzled hand.

“Four rings. He repeated it over and over.”

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