When Tristan Thompson’s name was called in the 2011 draft, many were shocked see him walk on stage ahead of Lithuanian big man Jonas Valanciunas. As the Cavaliers swept the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, it was Thompson again reaching the big stage as Valanciunas was left behind.
Thompson has been the Cavaliers’ second best player in this year’s playoffs. This is nothing new, as his gritty, defensive-minded, board-cleaning style has anchored the Cavaliers as they raced towards the NBA Finals over the last two years. His ability to bang with the bigs and slide with the smalls has made him one of the most uniquely-positioned players in the three-point revolution of the NBA. And that value is magnified in the playoff setting. When the game slows down, when possessions are at a premium, and when a defense is trying to switch the weakest link onto their strongest, Tristan is a weapon.
At age 26, Thompson is realizing his full potential on the court. Valanciunas played the role of dinosaur in the last round, showing how the league has moved away from the traditional big man who cannot extend beyond a few feet from the rim. Even as he imposed his will on the offensive end, offense-cratering post-ups struggle to maintain with elite three-point shooting teams. This is especially true as Valanciunas was unable to corral the Cavalier guards or chase Channing Frye off the three point line. Even as Valanciunas produced a quality Box Score in Game 3, the Cavs were able to extend their lead by exchanging two points for three of their own.
Thompson, meanwhile, has found ways to impact the game on the offensive end even as he is unable to provide shooting away from the rim. Averaging nearly five offensive rebounds per game, good for second in the playoffs, Thompson provides extra possessions for what is already the NBA’s most efficient offense. It also provides him the chance for easy put-backs, an area that generated nearly a third of his 7.8 points per game in the playoffs. He’s become an elite screener, averaging 5.6 screen assists (setting the screen for the ball carrier that ends in a made field goal), good for third-best in the postseason. He’s also elevated his game on that end, increasing his offensive rebound percentage by 4.6 percentage points. His second-chance points are up by a half a point per game, and his screen assists from 4.8 per game to 5.6.
The combination of James and Thompson is one head coach Tyronn Lue unleashed even more in the second round. Against the Pacers in Round 1, the bench unit had comprised mostly of James surrounded by shooters, with Channing Frye playing the center position. This was the unit that erased a 26-point deficit in Game 3 for the come-back win. But in Round 2, this lineup with Frye and James (surrounded by Deron Williams, Iman Shumpert, and Kyle Korver) was blitzed for a -39 net rating in 21 minutes. Lue made the switch to putting Thompson in Frye’s place, trading the defense and rebounding for Frye’s elite shooting. The result was the Cavaliers being +63.4 in just 18 minutes. They were able to rebound at an elite rate, grabbing over 63.3 percent of available rebounds, as well as defend, holding the Raptors to only 69 points per 100 possessions. It was reminiscent of the lineups from the previous season, featuring James, Thompson, and Matthew Dellavedova, but with Deron Williams subbed in Delly’s place. James, Thompson, and Korver have created a new terrifying trio, scoring nearly 27 points more than their opponent per 100 possessions in 43 playoff minutes. Let all that sink in.
Every round presents new challenges and matchups. This new bench unit may not be effective against the Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference Finals challenger. But whether in this lineup, with the starters, or in any other configuration, Tristan Thompson has been dominating. There has been no threat, either real (his sprained right thumb just prior to the playoffs) or imagined (the silly blaming of Tristan’s celebrity girlfriend for any on-court performance), that has been able to slow Thompson down once he’s been invited to the stage.