NBA Saturday: Tristan Thompson Has Been Key for Cavaliers

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When the Golden State Warriors won the 2014-15 NBA championship, many people complained that they were fortunate to avoid several top-level Western Conference foes and that their NBA Finals victory came against a decimated Cleveland Cavaliers team. The Warriors certainly heard the criticism from people inside and outside of the league and subsequently spent this entire season destroying teams at a historic rate in an attempt to prove last season was no fluke.

The Warriors sure did grab the NBA’s collective attention this season. Stephen Curry put together one of the best individual seasons of all-time. Klay Thompson continued to improve his overall game, while putting together some timely clutch performances during the regular season and the playoffs. Draymond Green also improved his overall game and is now firmly established as one of the best overall players in the league. In addition, the Warriors’ role players have collectively stepped up all season and provided the sort of depth that most teams have no hope of competing with over 48 minutes on any given night.

As a reward for all of their achievements this season, the Warriors earned another shot at beating the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals – and this time Cleveland would have a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. After six games, everything comes down to Sunday when the Warriors will host the Cavaliers in a decisive Game 7 at Oracle Arena. However, while Irving has had some big performances for the Cavaliers, they have received little production from Love on either end of the court. Fortunately for the Cavaliers, Tristan Thompson has filled in for Love and provided a little bit of everything for Cleveland in this series.

In Game 6, Thompson contributed 15 points, 16 rebounds and three assists, while making all six of his field goal attempts and three of his four free throw attempts. Additionally, Thompson led the Cavaliers with a plus-minus rating of +32, ahead of even LeBron James (who had a +26 rating).

However, Thompson was even better in Game 6 than his box score statistics suggest. Thompson has managed to impact the game by setting effective screens, finding multiple ways to get James space to attack the rim, running the court in transition and being opportunistic when the Warriors lose track of him among many other things.

In this first clip, we see James call for a screen from Richard Jefferson so he can switch off of Andre Iguodala and onto Curry. This leaves James in a one-on-one matchup with Curry, though Iguodala and Green allow Jefferson to go to the opposite corner so they can focus on protecting the rim. Thompson recognizes that Iguodala is waiting for James, so he darts into the lane and clears Iguodala out. As a result, Green gets stuck behind the scuffle, Iguodala is out of position and James gets an easy shot directly over Curry. Thompson easily could have been called for a foul on this play, but the refs missed it and the Cavs get two easy points.

In the second clip, Thompson again sees an opportunity to free James from Iguodala by setting a screen at the three-point line. Again, Thompson’s positioning is on point and the angle he takes gives James enough space to get around Iguodala and past Festus Ezeli.

The box score won’t show that Thompson was responsible for getting James open on both of these plays, but a player like Thompson likely isn’t too concerned about that. After Game 6, Thompson explained his role and what his role is and how he tries to impact the game.

“(You’ve got to) do your job. Do it at a high level. Give it everything you’ve got,” Thompson said after Thursday night’s game. “This is it. This is it. This is The Finals. There’s not much more to say about that.

“Like LeBron and Kyrie said, 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 … and I try to do that every night.”

Thompson has definitely been a star in his role over the last few games. His ability to set effective screens has freed James to attack the rim relentlessly and penetrate the Warriors’ defense, allowing him to either score at the rim or kick the ball out to open shooters. Additionally, Thompson is making himself a target by clearing out James’ defender and staying ready for easy scoring opportunities, as we see in this clip.

Thompson played a game-high 43 minutes in Game 6, but still managed to be play physically and never lost pace. He even was able to be a weapon in transition by filling a lane and running hard down the court. With James often handling the ball and multiple shooters on the court, Thompson likely isn’t the Warriors’ number one priority in these situations. Knowing this, Thompson was able to run to the rim and find easy alley oops from James.

“Amazing,” is how J.R. Smith described Thompson’s night. “He hasn’t been having the series he wanted to. Tonight, the last two games actually, was huge. 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.”

It’s notable that Smith mentioned that Thompson is “worth every penny.” Thompson and the Cavaliers were at a stalemate before this season started as Thompson wanted a max-level contract. It was a divisive issue, but the Cavaliers stepped up and brought Thompson back into the fold. The Cavaliers are now reaping the benefits of having Thompson on the squad as he has been a key figure in keeping Cleveland’s season alive in these last two games.

Considering that Thompson has been doing all of the little things to help his team win, and Love has been less than stellar, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Cavaliers’ best lineups in this series feature Thompson. This is true despite the fact that Thompson still has little range and can only score around the rim, as we can see in his shot chart:

Despite this significant limitation, Thompson has managed to be opportunistic, punishing the Warriors whenever they cheat off of him or don’t pay attention to him.

In this clip, Thompson finds himself on the weak-side of the court as J.R. Smith aggressively attacks the rim. Smith draws three defenders, finding Thompson open for an easy alley oop. Thompson is the beneficiary of Smith’s decisive attack on the basket, but this sort of play underscores what Thompson has contributed over the last few games.

Between setting tough (though arguably illegal) screens, opening up space for James, running the floor in transition, gobbling up rebounds, guarding Curry and other wings on the perimeter effectively and finding spots on the court for opportunistic baskets, Thompson has been giving the Warriors the sort of headaches that Draymond Green tends to give his opponents.

“His physicality every night, guarding one through five and on the glass, it’s critical to who we are,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “Tristan is the heart and soul of this team.”

That sort of description is what we usually hear when Green’s teammates and coaches talk about his style of play and contributions. Thompson may not be as big of a contributor as Green overall, but his effectiveness in the last few games is undeniable. The Cavaliers are still underdogs heading into Game 7, but if they pull off the biggest Finals comeback in history, you can bet that Thompson will be one of the key reasons why.