It didn't take baffling brilliance to predict that Tristan Thompson needed to play a major role for the Cleveland Cavaliers to beat the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals. That's why some decidedly unbrilliant scrub tapped Thompson as one of the six most important players in this series.
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Thompson was arguably Cleveland's second-best player in the 2015 Finals, doing every scrap of dirty work he could to help LeBron James drag an injury-depleted and overwhelmed Cavs roster to six games before bowing out. While this year's model had Kyrie Irving (hooray!) and Kevin Love (welp!), the specific things that Thompson does so well — relentlessly attacking the offensive glass, locking down the defensive boards, setting stiff screens and rolling hard to the rim, defending in space on the pick-and-roll, moving his feet to stay with quick guards like Stephen Curry on switches — still figured to matter just as much against a Warriors team that forces opponents to value possessions like precious metals, and that challenges you to find ways to apply pressure while being stretched out over the entire length and width of the court.
Thompson's game is all about that living in that leverage: about pushing and pulling to create or take away the space Cleveland needs, about keeping the Cavaliers' boulder rolling downhill and preventing their opponents from stopping the momentum. It's typically not a game that results in outsized stat lines or even sterling advanced analytical production, which is why so many scoffed at the Cavs giving Thompson — a non-elite rim protector who can't shoot, and who'd averaged a somewhat pedestrian 10.1 points and 8.4 rebounds through his first four pro seasons — a five-year, $82 million contract in restricted free agency last summer. There wasn't much scoffing, though, after a Game 6 in which Thompson beasted on the Warriors on both ends of the floor, giving a masterful LeBron precisely the strong-arm support he needed to make the Warriors buckle and snap, and send the Finals back to Oakland for a winner-take-all Game 7.
“Tonight, the last two games actually, was huge," said Smith. "The way he’s been playing, hustling down, getting loose balls, rebounds, knocking down his free throws when they try and foul him to slow the game down. He’s been doing a hell of a job. He’s worth every penny he’s got.”
Thompson turned in his best game of the series when the Cavs needed it most, scoring 15 points on perfect 6-for-6 shooting with 16 rebounds in 43 minutes. Despite the Warriors beginning the game with the vaunted Death Lineup, playing small with Draymond Green at center alongside Harrison Barnes at power forward, Andre Iguodala at small forward and Splash Brothers Curry and Klay Thompson in the backcourt, it was Cleveland's brand of small-ball that carried the day. The Cavs outscored Golden State by 27 points in the 33-plus minutes during which Tristan Thompson was the only center on the floor, and got outscored by 14 points in any other configuration.
"Like LeBron and Kyrie said: be a star in your role," Thompson told reporters after Game 6. "Be a star in your role, and for me, that's high-energy, use my motor, just play hard. Play hard, be relentless on the glass. And that's what I bring to this team. That's my job. Just be a star in your role, and I try to do that every night."
As ever, his impact went beyond the traditional stat sheet. In addition to the three assists he dished out, Thompson generated three "screen assists," according to NBA.com's hustle-stat tracking. That means his ability to impede a Warriors defender led directly to a made basket by the ball-handler he freed up, like this LeBron layup past Festus Ezeli, created by Thompson cleaning out Andre Iguodala on a rescreen:
But Thompson also made significant impacts on plays that even those secondary stats don't quite pick up. His interior activity got Golden State anxious early, with Curry, Barnes and Ezeli all picking up first-quarter fouls trying to stop Thompson from grabbing offensive rebounds or finshing interior dump-offs with dunks.
After Richard Jefferson set the screen that triggered a switch forcing a mismatch by putting Curry on LeBron early in the first quarter, Thompson gave James an even clearer path to work with by crashing down and smushing Iguodala to prevent him from giving Curry help along the back line:
Later, after some good off-ball action and ball movement helped put Golden State in rotation, and after LeBron made a bullet feed from under the basket to find J.R. Smith up top, Thompson helped keep J.R.'s sightline clean by holding up Ezeli in the paint to prevent him from making what would have already been an incredibly difficult closeout:
Warriors fans are probably fuming, wondering why Thompson didn't get called for fouls on those plays, but that sort of war goes on in the trenches every night and, as a great American philosopher once said, cheating's only cheating if you get caught. Thompson took advantage of the officials' willingness to let extra physicality go down low, helping the Cavaliers get an extra couple of buckets to fuel a first-quarter steamrolling that put out the Warriors' lights almost as soon as they came on.
“If you ain't ready to get in the jungle, you can't come on this court. It's the Finals, baby,” Thompson said before Game 6, according to Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun. “Nothing soft down there. Hand to hand combat, bumping and grinding, it’s part of being a big, that’s what you signed up for when you’re that tall.”
While the early attacking and playmaking of James and Kyrie Irving played the biggest role in Cleveland building and maintaining the early lead it would never relinquish, Thompson's dominion over the defensive glass ensured the Warriors wouldn't get extra bites at the apple after coming up empty on their initial shot.
He grabbed eight defensive rebounds in the first quarter, compared to five for Golden State as a team. He also tipped a carom clear for LeBron to grab it, and boxed out Ezeli so Richard Jefferson could pull one down. Those defensive rebounds led to runout opportunities, and man alive, did the Cavaliers take advantage of them, rolling up a 9-0 edge in fast-break points in the first quarter and a 19-10 advantage for the game, as Cleveland — much to my surprise, and the surprise of many — continues to control the proceedings when the pace of the game speeds up.
"Once again, Double T's energy and activity, his level, his rebounding, obviously giving us extra possessions," James said after the game. "But his defensive rebounding, from the beginning, was at an all-time high level for himself. Even though as great as he is, he was spectacular tonight."
Thompson posted his lowest offensive rebound total of the series in Game 6 — it turns out it's hard to grab misses when your teammates barely miss — but the two he did pull down both turned directly into points. First, he set up Kyrie, pushing Cleveland's lead to 13:
Later, he found a cutting LeBron for one of the King's dozens of highlight-reel plays in a brilliant Game 6:
Each one-shot-and-done Golden State trip Thompson finished, and each Cavalier possession he extended, made it seem more and more like the Warriors were playing in quicksand. The harder and more frantically they fought, the deeper they sank into their hole.
Thompson even set Love up for his lone highlight of the evening, getting his Draymond Green on with a nifty bit of short-roll playmaking that led to a Love 3-pointer, and that seemed to get Tristan more amped than any rebound or block would have:
Thompson's more notable offensive contributions came at the front of the rim, like when he used his athleticism and spirit to beat Golden State's big men down the floor for a dunk off a pretty James bounce pass:
That was, of course, only the second prettiest bounce pass LeBron would set him up with in the first quarter:
... which, thanks to J.R. Smith, was arguably only the second prettiest pass Thompson received on Thursday night:
But while Thompson certainly benefitted from stellar service on his six baskets, he still had to do his part. He had to create the angle for James' pocket pass with his motion, and had to time his rolls just so to ensure that he was coming into clean airspace as the defense collapsed on the passer. He had to catch the feeds in traffic moving at full speed, which is no sure thing. (Just ask Festus.) He had to finish either through contact or over the top of bodies, and he had to do it without coughing up the ball or coming up empty, setting Golden State up with a transition opportunity that might allow them to get off to the races before he could get back in the play to lock down the front of the rim.
"When LeBron drives to the rim, or Kyrie, they attract two guys," Thompson told reporters after Game 6. "So for myself and others, just get to the open area and when they throw it to you, pass to you, go up and finish strong. [...] Get to the open area, and if [LeBron] throws it, go up and finish strong, go up and finish strong because he's attracting the bigs, so you're going to have a small on you, so go up and finish strong and put it on the rim."
That, as much as the craft of his screen-setting or the relentlessness of his motor, is the beauty of Thompson's work in these Finals: he so often does his job without screwing up. He brings things to the table without taking anything off. It sounds simple, but it isn't, especially at this time of year, and it's helped give LeBron and Kyrie a steady backbeat over which to play their solos and send Cleveland soaring into the biggest game in franchise history.
"His physicality [is key] every night," Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue said. "Guarding one through five, on the glass every night, and just, you know, he brings a physicality to this game every single night. He's the heart and soul of our team."
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