The Cleveland Cavaliers showed up in Game 4 Friday night. The-most-points-in-a-NBA Finals-quarter-ever Cavs showed up.
With 49 points and 22 free-throw attempts in the first quarter (if only they didn’t miss eight), the tone of the game and their approach was different immediately. After an elevated performance and near win in Game 3 before a late breakdown and 11-0 Golden State Warriors run, the Cavs showed some improvements, a few silver linings to give their fans a little hope that 16-0 wouldn’t become a reality for the Warriors.
Well, in Game 4, the Cavs couldn’t have done much more, winning 137-116 and scoring a ridiculous record-breaking 86 points on 60.9 percent shooting in the first half. To go along with beyond explosive offense and a Finals-record 24 made 3-pointers, their defensive intensity and overall energy (despite some inevitable late switches and help rotations) was heightened and obvious from the start, and Tristan Thompson deserves a lot of credit for that. Even though his five-point, 10-rebound, five-assist stat line isn’t exactly overwhelming, he did what was needed.
“Tristan Thompson, tone setter” is who the Cavs were waiting for. He failed to stay on the floor for extended time in this series up until Friday night, failing to grab nearly the amount of rebounds expected of him while also struggling defensively. He went scoreless in Games 1 and 3, grabbed a measly total of 11 rebounds, and had the worst defensive rating (130.2) of any player in the series. In a word, he wasn’t good. Even Stephen Curry was miles ahead on the glass with 27 rebounds in the first three games, so that tells you all you need to know.
However, if Thompson had an individual switch to flip, he did so in Game 4. Seeing him put his foot down and show some all-around aggressiveness from the get-go helped spark the Cavs.
On their way to attacking the paint and getting physical at both ends, Thompson grabbing two offensive rebounds in the first two minutes and recording an assist with both of them was a great sign. Hustle, strong screens and second chances is pretty much all the Cavs want from Thompson offensively in this series, so adding heads-up passes on the back of those offensive boards shows his personal improvement and how many contributions the Cavs got across the board in this game:
“I get it, I’m last on the checklist,” Thompson recently said to ESPN’s Zach Lowe in a fantastic feature on how he has become a player built on deflating the will of opponents. “That’s fine with me. I love seeing all the energy and hope come out of the other team. … People say I’m demoralizing, huh? Well, I’m honored. I like it. Everyone has to find their niche, right?”
Thompson surpassed his rebounding total for the first three Finals games in the first quarter of Game 4, grabbing five boards, including three offensive. He finished with 10 to lead the Cavs, tying with LeBron James.
Soon after those first two offensive rebounds, Thompson continued to inspire his teammates with high-effort plays. For a start, he picked up Curry at halfcourt, sensing a chance to disrupt the Warriors even further. Thompson stuck to Curry as close as possible, got physical, and forced a backcourt violation.
When a player furthers momentum by creating plays or stops out of nothing like that, it rubs off on teammates. Every hard box out, sprint back in transition, offensive rebound and deflection helps, and Thompson was doing all of it with far more success than the previous three games.
Just look at how hard Thompson ran back on defense in transition here after missing the offensive rebound, smothering Draymond Green (which isn’t easy to do for most bigs) all the way to the rim before staying grounded and contesting the shot without fouling:
This isn’t something we’ve been able to say about the Cavs at all this series, but that was perfect transition defense from Thompson.
Thompson and the Cavs as a whole upped their effort, helping them finish with more deflections (18) and lose ball recoveries (17) than the Warriors.
For his 10th and final rebound of the night, Thompson recorded another put-back off a Kyrie Irving miss, putting the Cavs’ lead back up to 19 with a little under six minutes left. In the scrappiest game of the series — from puzzling technical foul confusion with Green, to James and Kevin Durant face-to-face moments, to courtside fan ejections — Thompson made his mean mark in the exact fashion the Cavs needed. They needed him to compliment more LeBron brilliance, Irving’s awesome 40-point game (15-of-27 shooting, including 7 of 12 from 3) and an overall shooting downpour from his teammates.
And once the game came to an end, it was clear Thompson wasn’t going to let some of the verbal confrontations and physical moments (Zaza Pachulia’s hit to Iman Shumpert’s groin as they battled for a loose ball, for instance) be swept under the rug, per Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com:
“It’s the Finals. Guys are going to talk,” Thompson said. “We’re going to respond, but they aren’t going to punk us. Not me. They’re not about to punk Tristan Thompson. You got the game [expletive] up with that one. You can talk all you want, but I’m definitely going to bark back. That’s just how I’m built.
“We know what’s at stake. We know it’s all or nothing, so you have to leave it all out there and try to be active early. I wanted to set a tone for the game early.”
Thompson knew what he wanted to do to make more of an impact in Game 4. It’s safe to say he executed.
Of course, the Warriors could easily close out this series in Game 5, seeing as it’s hard to imagine the Cavs breaking the NBA Finals records for scoring in a quarter, a half and made 3-pointers again. That being said, if their increased defensive intensity remains, they stay hot enough from 3 and Thompson can be a factor in altering the tone and edge on the glass, the Cavs have a much better chance to take this series to six games.