Al Horford torched Kevin Love in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Come to think of it, everyone on the Boston Celtics took a flamethrower to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 108-83 win that left the basketball world wondering if this was the beginning of the end to LeBron James’ string of eight straight NBA Finals. But Horford really had his way, posting Love up, stretching him out to the 3-point line, and taking him off the dribble when he closed out. When all was said and done, he scored 18 points on nine shots and added a pair of assists in 31 possessions opposite his fellow All-Star, serving as the foundation for the mismatches Boston constructed all over the floor.
This led to questions about whether the Cavs would counter with Tristan Thompson in Game 2, as they did to close out the Indiana Pacers in a series that posed similar problems to a lesser level. Thompson responded then with his first double-double since February (15 points, 10 rebounds), and Cleveland has had success against Horford’s Celtics and Atlanta Hawks with Thompson playing heavy minutes.
It makes some sense, and Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue sounded intrigued by the roster shakeup.
“It’s definitely something we have to weigh,” Lue told reporters on Monday, calling Thompson the NBA’s best defender against Horford among those who faced him more than 30 possessions since 2016. “We weighed it before the series started, but we won seven out of eight, and we weren’t going to adjust until someone beat us. We didn’t play well with that lineup, and that got us to this point.”
Where has Tristan Thompson been?
Thompson started at center for Cleveland each of the past two postseasons, including all 21 games of the team’s 2016 title run, and he earned a reputation for his relentless effort, especially on the glass. He lost his starting job to a strained left calf in November, and the Cavs won 13 straight games with a smaller starting lineup in his absence. As Cleveland struggled, he moved back into the starting lineup and stayed there once Love broke his hand, before losing his spot again to an ankle injury in March. His playing time dwindled to the point he received three DNPs in the first five games of the first round.
There’s a reason he’s been kept on ice, too. During the regular season, the Cavs were significantly better on offense and defense without Thompson in the lineup, going from being outscored by 5.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor to outscoring opponents by 3.3 points per 100 when he moves to the bench. For whatever reason, he has not been the energizer he was in years past.
That has changed in limited playoff minutes, when the Cavaliers have been 12.4 points per 100 possessions better with him in the mix. But statistics don’t reflect how much of a monster on the boards Thompson has been against Boston over the years, providing backbreaking second chances.
Then again, the Cavs haven’t had much issue with or without Thompson against the Celtics since LeBron returned to Cleveland, owning an 8-2 playoff record against Brad Stevens’ Boston teams.
Is Thompson really an Al Horford stopper?
In 81 possessions this season — less than a full game of data — Thompson has restricted Horford to nine points on 3-of-9 shooting and seven assists, as the Celtics and Cavs have played to a standstill. Thompson was also a plus-76 in five playoff games against Boston in the 2017 Eastern Conference finals. These are all reasons to be encouraged if you’re Lue looking at numbers after a 25-point loss.
But Horford is a different player this year than he was a season ago. He’s a significantly better 3-point shooter, making 42.9 percent of his three attempts per game during the regular season — good for top-10 in the league and the best mark among starting bigs in the NBA — and since hiring a new trainer this past summer, he’s more willing to attack you off the dribble when you close out on him.
When you look at the tape, the Celtics have been happy to feed Horford on the perimeter when he’s matched up with Thompson. The shots haven’t fallen as often as they would have liked over the past 10 meetings, but with Horford now averaging 1.29 points per 3-point attempt, they’ll take these looks:
They haven’t shied away from that matchup elsewhere, either. Horford slips screens to lose an overcompensating Thompson, takes him off the dribble and posts him up, where he’s been the NBA’s most productive player and the Celtics have been the league’s most efficient team in these playoffs:
What else can Cleveland expect from Thompson?
Increasing Thompson’s minutes may force the Celtics to counter with Aron Baynes, who was an anchor of the league’s best defensive team this season. Lineups with Baynes and Horford in them this season allowed 95 points per 100 possessions — a ridiculously low figure over 863 minutes. But that number has risen to 108.1 per 100 in 128 playoff minutes, when Boston is minus-16 with the two of them on the floor, so that’s another number for the Cavs to hang their hat on when playing a matchup game.
One benefit of forcing the Celtics to go big with Baynes would be limiting Marcus Morris’ minutes. As much as we mocked Morris for saying he’s the NBA’s best LeBron stopper outside of Kawhi Leonard, he was a disruptive force in Game 1. Morris, Tatum and Jaylen Brown have proven the NBA’s best offensive triumvirate of the playoffs, and any move that might curb their time together is worth trying.
Love may guard Baynes on the other end in this scenario, and the Celtics would still have a mismatch with whoever J.R. Smith or Kyle Korver is defending, but Thompson can help muck up the middle when Tatum, Brown and Terry Rozier attack the rim. Boston scored 60 points in the paint in Game 1 and generated even more offense by getting there at will. Horford and even Baynes can stretch the defense, but Cleveland might be willing to let them drip if it means shutting off the deluge inside.
How will the Celtics adjust to the adjustment?
One thing we know for sure is that Celtics coach Brad Stevens will be prepared for the Thompson adjustment. Because Boston isn’t worried about Thompson’s scoring, Stevens may still go small, keeping Morris opposite LeBron. This would free up Love to post Tatum or Brown, but both young Celtics have the length to make him work. The problem for Boston is keeping Thompson off the offensive glass. If Horford can do that, he can turn the Cavs center into a relative zero on that end.
This is the problem when facing these Celtics. They’re so versatile that when you plug one dam, it opens another. Thompson will be tasked with either chasing Horford on the perimeter, where he was the NBA’s best shooting big during the regular season, or banging with him in the post, where he has been the league’s best shooting big in the playoffs. And even if Thompson succeeds in shutting off Horford, he will find Tatum and Brown, who will hunt matchups against Love and Korver or Smith.
That the Celtics are forcing the Cavs to match up with them and not the other way around says more than anything about how different these teams are from the ones that met here last year. And that Cleveland’s biggest adjustment is Tristan Thompson says everything about the uphill battle it faces.
There are other, more natural adjustments Cleveland must make. LeBron has to play better. The Cavs can’t start 0-for-14 from 3-point range. And, as simple as it sounds, they just have to try harder. But this series will come down to whether LeBron is enough of a mismatch on his own to overcome the matchup problems Boston creates everywhere else, and maybe Thompson helps tip that in his favor.
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