Even when Tristan Thompson can’t possibly play any better, he still gets overlooked in favor of more heralded teammates.
That phenomenon actually made sense following Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. LeBron James’ 38 points, nine rebounds and seven assists seemed startlingly easy, and Kevin Love scored 32 points while connecting on 6-of-9 on 3-pointers in his first playoff game against the Boston Celtics since Kelly Olynyk pulled his shoulder out of its socket two years ago. The stars shined bright and the narratives aligned on Wednesday night.
How much attention could be left for a lunch-pail player like Thompson? Enough for Ty Lue to give him some on the postgame podium, at least.
“Tristan was big. He’s our energy. He’s our motor,” Cleveland’s coach said. “Defensively he was great. But all the offensive rebounds, he had six offensive rebounds, was huge for us. And then finishing around the basket. His toughness and his will are just big for us. I think his physicality is huge for us, especially against this team.”
Energy. Motor. Defense. Offensive rebounds. Physicality. Those are the traits the basketball world has come to expect from Thompson, and he offered them in abundance in Game 1. Not specifically mentioned by Lue, though, was the statistic that places his starting center in the history books: Thompson becoming just the fourth player this decade to score at least 20 points in a playoff game while not missing a shot.
Crashing the offensive glass, setting screens and drawing defenders with hard rolls to the rim are Thompson’s responsibilities offensively. Cleveland doesn’t even afford him the courtesy post-up some teams give similar bigs once a game. Thompson’s offensive role is finite, and he’s come close to perfecting it in Year 3 of James’ second stint with the Cavaliers.
It was no secret coming into this series that owning on the boards and exploiting individual mismatches were Cleveland’s trump cards against Boston. Thompson is instrumental to each of those advantages, both directly and indirectly.
The Celtics, one of the league’s worst defensive rebounding teams, were helpless boxing him out in Game 1. Thompson had half of Cleveland’s 12 offensive rebounds, and he won multiple extra possessions by drawing fouls while fighting for teammates’ misses.
He was so dominant as an offensive rebounder that Marcus Smart eventually took matters into his own hands. The notoriously combative Celtics guard took exception after the two were entangled while fighting for position late in the third quarter, and just backed into Thompson away from the play, James Harden style, to draw a foul in the backcourt shortly thereafter.
Was Boston trying to get into Thompson’s head? Surely. After the game, Thompson insisted he wouldn’t be affected by that mental gamesmanship.
“We’re on a mission,” he told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. “I’m not about to let a player take me out of my element and force me to do something very AAU-ish by retaliating. Save that for the AAU games.”
AAU players could learn a thing or two from Thompson, by the way, about the value of effective picks. He set the ball screens that left poor Kelly Olynyk on an island with James on consecutive possessions late in the first quarter.
To be fair, Boston would have switched in the clips above regardless of which big man played James’ pick-and-roll partner. That approach was schemed before tipoff, with the hopeful benefit of limiting his supreme influence as a passer to the Cavaliers’ stable of 3-point shooters.
Thompson’s caliber as a screener probably had at least something to do with it, though. He’s a master at flipping picks last second and re-screening after the first try goes nowhere. The Celtics also might have been spooked away from sending two to the ball a couple of minutes earlier, when Thompson fooled Jaylen Brown with a subtle look-off en route to an uncontested dunk.
Boston tried hedging James-Thompson pick-and-rolls just after halftime. That didn’t work, either. See how Thompson immediately reverse pivots after brushing off Jae Crowder? The speed and precision of his roll ensures Al Horford won’t have time to properly help off Love – who’d been fouled behind the arc and drilled a triple on Cleveland’s first two third-quarter possessions – in the weak-side corner.
But defense is where Thompson’s influence looms largest for the Cavaliers, especially against a team like Boston.
Al Horford killed the Washington Wizards last round with pick-and-pops and quick dribble attacks. Marcin Gortat was stuck in no man’s land with Horford, unable to recover on jumpers or slide his feet off the catch. Foot speed isn’t a problem for Thompson, though, and the Celtics know it.
It was staggering to watch Horford stand in the corner as an overqualified floor-spacer throughout Game 1. Thomas-Horford ball screens got Boston whatever it wanted in the Conference Semifinals, but the Celtics seemed to actively avoid that basic action Wednesday night. Why? Thompson can keep the ball in front of him when switching onto Thomas, and the pairing of he and James, especially, has mastered the intricate dance of toggling assignments on the fly.
Thompson is well past the point of playing for accolades. He helped bring Northeast Ohio its first championship in over five decades last year by doing the dirty work that goes unnoticed. All that matters is his coaching staff and teammates understanding Thompson’s importance to the Cavaliers’ success, something obviously not lost on the best player in the world.
“Double T [was] phenomenal,” James said after the game. What more adulation could anyone need?
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