There’s a laundry list of adjectives that can describe the Cleveland Cavaliers’ unlikely comeback in these NBA Finals. Dazzling, for LeBron James’ performance. Befuddling, for the Golden State Warriors’ lack of poise. Dizzying, for the way Kyrie Irving has put the Warrior guards on skates.
But in a way, it’s also been underwhelming.
Yet a deeper look reveals that Thompson is at the center of a clever Cavaliers adjustment, doing all of the little things to make Cleveland go.
Thompson first showed how indispensable he can be for Cleveland back in Games 3 and 4, where his activity on the offensive glass led to an abundance of second chance opportunities. All of which the Cavs cashed in on. When a 2-0 series deficit stared Cleveland straight in the face, Thompson never wavered and his play reached a new increment, netting 14 points and grabbing 13 rebounds as well as finishing with a BPM of +22, guiding Cleveland back into the series.
In spite of Cleveland falling short in Game Four, Thompson yet again pulled off another resounding performance by hauling in six offensive rebounds in 28 minutes of play. This vine clip of Thompson ripping through the arms of Golden State’s James Michael McAdoo on his way to a ferocious dunk late in the first quarter epitomizes his role on Cleveland. Not as a first-rate option offensively, but someone who is there every night to do the dirty work and hand Cleveland extra possessions.
Coming into this year’s Finals, Cleveland’s chances of keeping up with the NBA’s best regular season team ever, Golden State Warriors, hung in the balance of power forward Kevin Love. Or so they thought. Love, who is designated as the critical third option to Cleveland’s explosive “Big Three” paired with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, has regressed mightily almost becoming a complete non-factor through all six Finals games.
A key embodiment of Love’s game revolves around how well he does in space – being Cleveland’s best stretch-the-floor big man and neutralizing opponent’s effectiveness on the pick-and-roll. For the better part of this year’s Finals, Love has done none of that, as he’s averaged only 8.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and is shooting a woeful 35.4 percent from the field. His sharp decline of production administered a change of pace, forcing head coach Tyronn Lue to switch up his lineup in Game 5, handing over Love’s wasted minutes to a more rejuvenated and productive Tristan Thompson.
Ultimately, the abrupt switch has turned the tide for Cleveland, who steered past elimination twice in Games Five and Six. While James and Irving have been at the forefront of the Cavs’ revival, both scoring 40 points in back-to-back “do or die” games. Thompson’s presence has been imminent by essentially being the team’s third option.
Thompson’s best work during these Finals, maybe even the entire playoffs was in Game Six where it seemed everything came together for the 25-year old that’s seeking to expand upon his current $82 million dollar deal.
Evidence of Thompson’s 15 point and 16 rebound performance, one that sparked a BPM of +31 (his second highest this postseason behind his +34 in Game 5 of Eastern Conference Finals) is traced back to a myriad of factors, but in the end boils down to a couplet of crucial facets.
The first example is visible during Thompson’s versatility in the pick-and-roll, this time on offense. This play occurs when the Warriors are enduring one of the worst first quarter in these playoffs ever. Their poor shooting and inability to switch was a culprit already and in this case, it becomes even more magnified.
LeBron James is the primary ball-handler in this play and decides to drive with his left hand. Golden State’s Festus Ezeli reacts well and does a great job of cutting off James’ penetration. However, there’s two-sides of this play that makes it more extensive. As soon as Ezeli cuts James off, Andre Iguodala leaves his man (Tristan Thompson) and over helps considerably. Both James and Thompson recognize this breakdown defensively and execute it precisely.
Once James backs out of the soft double team, he sees a knowledgable Thompson breaking to the basket. Thompson does the rest by finishing the play with a wide-open flush.
The next piece of Thompson’s Game 6 ascension is his fortitude to run the floor. This was a turning-point of the game as Golden State had sliced a 22-point deficit to 12 in roughly nine minutes. At this point, Cleveland needed one more push to end the first half off right.
A handful of Warriors are caught ball watching LeBron methodically bring the ball up and literally no one sees a 6-foot-9 Thompson glide down the court. Ultimately, Thompson sprints past four Golden State players, mainly a passive Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, and soars to the basket, slamming home an alley-oop from James.
Thompson burns Golden State again in transition. This time, however, he initiates the fast-break by being the trailing rebounder. In a play that’s set up similar to the one above it, Thompson showcases his streaky speed once more. It’s amazing just how aware a player is in this play (Tristan Thompson) and how unaware a collective unit is (the entire Warriors defense). As you can see, Thompson dashes past Ezeli and darts behind Iguodala for a flamboyant finish in about four seconds. Unreal.
Tristan Thompson has not only made up for Love’s absence, but has opened up options for Lue to utilize in a “do-or-die” Game 7 Sunday night. Thompson’s timely rise has made him available to “mix and match” with whatever lineup Lue decides to draw up. Whether it’s going small to contest with Golden State’s exclusive brand of stretch-fours or go big and compliment center Richard Jefferson in the post and demoralize the Warriors’ ball-dominant guards on the perimeter. For six games in this series, Cleveland has dodged every flaw in their game by bringing in a surplus of options. Tristan Thompson is that option. An option that’s saved the Cavaliers’ season, not once, but twice.
In the end, he might not receive any ounce of credit of bringing a maligned Cavs team one win away from basketball glory and another step closer of retaining honor to a championship starved city. Thompson isn’t playing the role to take home Finals MVP either, that’s Kyrie Irving and LeBron James’ job. But not for a split second should Thompson’s role on Cleveland be ignored. He is Cleveland’s little engine that could. He is Cleveland’s burgeoning force that’s been let loose across basketball’s biggest stage. Growling. Biting. At any chance he gets.