TORONTO – They had billed it as the deepest, most entertaining Three-Point Shootout in the 30-year history of the event. And on Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre, the NBA’s top long-range marksmen justified the hype.
A comic actor even rose to the moment. When Kevin Hart, all 5-foot-4 of him, made a late run to tie Golden State’s Draymond Green in a special challenge shootout, you suspected that more amazing things were in store.
The main event didn’t disappoint. As anticipated, it came down to a battle between the Warriors’ celebrated Splash Brothers – defending three-point champion Stephen Curry and his backcourt mate, Klay Thompson.
Thompson won it in dramatic fashion, scoring 27 points as the last shooter in the finals to defeat Curry and tie the record Curry set a year ago in New York. Curry hit his first seven shots in the final before fading (by his standards, anyway) and finishing with 23. Devin Booker of the Suns, at 19, the youngest-ever participant, finished third.
“I’m not gonna lie, I got nervous when he hit his first” seven, said Thompson, who finished second to Curry a year ago. “I didn’t think he was going to miss. But it was exciting, just coming back to Oakland with the title. Back-to-back years for Splash Brothers, it’s pretty cool.”
Thompson was gracious in last year’s defeat, but he had seemed a bit indignant on Friday when he was asked how it felt knowing everyone expected Curry to win.
“Everybody thinks that?” he said. “Oh, wow. There’s got to be a few who think Klay has a chance. I mean, I don’t mean to refer to myself in the third person, but there’s a few out there, I think. I’m one of them.”
One prominent hoop fan felt Thompson had a good shot. When the Warriors visited the White House last week, President Obama said that Thompson’s jump shot was “sweeter” than Curry’s, eliciting a nod of approval from Klay.
It’s no surprise when Thompson gets hot from deep. He’s one of the best streak shooters in history. A year ago, he scored 37 points in one quarter against Sacramento. He hit all 13 of his field-goal attempts in the third quarter, including all nine of his three-pointers.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr says nothing fazes Thompson. If he’s missing, he keeps shooting. Kerr said Thompson has a laid-back personality that makes him well-suited to play second fiddle to Curry, the reigning league MVP.
But Thompson always responds when Curry isn’t around. Curry has scored fewer than 20 points eight times this season and missed two others with injury. In those games, Thompson averaged 26.3 points – five points above his average.
So when Curry left the door open a crack Saturday, his fellow Splash Brother was ready. Curry, who had to make his last two shots to reach the final, scored 23, the highest score in the contest to that point.
But it wasn’t enough. Thompson heated up and drilled his last five shots, all of them two-pointers, to win. The shooters designate one five-ball rack as the money rack (each worth two points) and he hit them all. It was a true money performance.
“I still think I can hold my own in the competition,” Curry said. “But the way that he finished off that second round was amazing, so trust me, the pressure of knowing what number he had to hit and making five out of five was fun to watch.”
Did money change hands between teammates after Curry got upset in the Three-Point Shootout?
“We had a gentleman’s bet,” Thompson said with a smile. “That was about it. It was just fun because we have friendly trash talk between each other, and it’s all lighthearted out there. You know, he’s the best shooter I’ve ever seen. So this is a rare occurrence that he loses.
“I’m just happy I caught him on an off night. We love to shoot against each other. I’ve never been on a team with someone who shoots it better than me, so it’s a privilege to work with him every day. He makes me that much better.”
There was lighthearted talk before the Shootout that Thompson wanted to beat Curry in the event so his more celebrated teammate would come back even more motivated after the NBA All-Star break.
If that’s the case, it’s bad news for the rest of the Association. The Warriors hit the break at 48-4, on pace to break the record of 72 wins set by Michael Jordan and the Bulls in 1995-96.
A more determined Curry is a scary thing to contemplate. He’s having his best season ever and is well on his way to breaking his own record for three-pointers made in a season, which he set a year ago.
Curry recently became the first player ever to make 200 three-pointers in four consecutive seasons. Thompson needs 39 three-pointers the rest of the way to join him. He’s a virtual lock to do it.
Back in December, ESPN analyst Mark Jackson caused a stir in NBA circles when he said that Curry’s long-range brilliance was hurting the sport.
“What I mean by that is that when I go into these high school gyms, I watch these kids and the first thing they do is they run to the three-point line.”
Jackson wasn’t knocking Curry, but making a point. He simply wants aspiring young players to realize that there’s a lot more to basketball than chucking up three-point bombs. After all, there’s no one like Stephen Curry.
On one unforgettable night in Toronto, though, someone was actually better. His own teammate, Thompson.
“I love it,” Curry said. “I might get to go hold the trophy myself every once in awhile if he brings it into practice.”