The USA's defense has resurfaced in the knockout stage, but the team's offense needed everything Thompson could deliver Friday. The summary of his shooting performances over seven games in Rio goes something like this: horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible, excellent, horrible, excellent.
By the numbers, he has scored 26.0 points against France and Spain, shooting slightly better than 50 percent, and averaged 3.0 points in the other five games, making 6 of 34 shots.
His offensive struggles are a symptom of playing for a deep team with a lot of capable scorers. The Warriors need him to score, so Thompson is allowed and encouraged to stay on the court and keep shooting in the NBA, even when he starts slowly. In the 40-minute games of the Olympics, he's not always able to get the volume of shots he needs.
Until playing 35 minutes Friday, Thompson had never logged more than 26 minutes in this tournament — even against France, as he scored 30 points to conclude group play. "It's different, because we all have different roles," Thompson said, comparing the Olympics to the NBA season. "We have to adjust and play more as a team."
The Americans needed his offense against Spain, as he went 8 of 16 from the field and his teammates shot less than 40 percent.
This game was a case of Spain's hanging around all afternoon, yet never really threatening. Even though the final margin was closer than in the gold medal games of 2008 in Beijing (11 points) and 2012 in London (seven), the USA was more in control throughout Friday's second half than in those contests.
NBA veteran Pau Gasol led Spain with 23 points. Otherwise, the USA did a nice defensive job, continuing to reassert itself after a rough three-game stretch in the middle of the tournament. The team's points-allowed totals — 62, 69, 88, 91, 97, 78, 76 — are partly a function of the opponent, but effort and concentration also play into those numbers.
"With passion like that, it's going to be tough to beat us," Kevin Durant said.
The Americans have played "great stretches of defense" in the Olympics, said assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, but "we had a lull when we got loose with leads, and you can't do that. The ball pressure has come back, the multiple-effort stuff has come back and the hustle plays have gotten us going the last two games."
The other variable? These games count. George described preliminary play as "five exhibitions." The USA has acted more interested against Argentina and Spain, whose missed shots enabled DeAndre Jordan to grab 16 rebounds in 27 minutes.
"We've all been in Game 7s," George said, and the Americans have responded well in this win-or-else phase of the Olympics. The one consistent element of their games in Rio is Durant's ability to score early (he finished with 14 points Friday). What they'll get offensively from anyone else is a game-to-game mystery, but Thompson re-emerged at just the right time, once again.