Tristan Thompson appeared in 306 regular-season games for the Cleveland Cavaliers before tasting Playoff basketball for the first time in his NBA career. After making his postseason debut against the Boston Celtics, the big man who has played in every single game since the 2012-13 campaign began has answered the bell against the Chicago Bulls, providing the consistency and energy his teammates have desperately needed. Following the loss of Kevin Love, Thompson has filled the void up front for Cleveland by being the most active player on the court at both ends of the floor.
“Sometimes you notice it more, sometimes you notice it less,” Blatt said of Thompson’s impact following the 101-96 Game 5 win in Cleveland. “But he’s in the fray, all the time. And he makes big plays that don’t necessarily show up as points. But a lot of times they’re possessions that lead to points. Or they’re momentum rebounds, or defensive slides, helps, switches, blocks, that can really, really save you. And I think he’s done that continuously throughout the season.”
Thompson finished 5-of-7 from the floor for 12 points in the Game 5 win on Wednesday. During Game 4, he only needed six field-goal attempts to finish with the same number. For the series, he’s shooting 61 percent from the floor overall and a respectable 75 percent from the free-throw stripe. But that’s not what his coach and LeBron James talk about when referencing Thompson’s value to the Cavaliers. It’s his attack of the glass and relentless pursuit of the basketball around the rim that’s causing praise to be heaped on Thompson, and helping to be the difference up front for the Cavs.
“Tristan’s been unbelievable,” LeBron said after securing a 3-2 series lead over Chicago. “Through five games, I give him an A+. It’s all effort with Double-T. Can’t coach a motor. When a guy has a motor, you can’t coach it. You put him on the floor, he’s going to make things happen. He has a knack for rebounding, he has a high motor and he really, really cares. And obviously, we wouldn’t be sitting here with a 3-2 lead without Double-T.”
The Cavaliers obviously wouldn’t be in this position without James, either, who was locked in and attacking throughout Cleveland’s latest victory. After hitting the game-winner on Sunday, James totaled 24 points in the first half before finishing with 38, 12 and 6 to go along with zero turnovers. It’s a stat-line that Thompson and his desire to make others around him better takes pride in helping make possible.
“It’s Game 5, LeBron in the Q to go up 3-2,” Thompson said of LeBron’s performance. “That’s what you expect. You expect that from him. So for us, we have to make things easier for him. Set good screens, get him open and let him work.”
Thompson put in his share of work during Game 5 as well, registering a double-double for the second time in the series. He’s collected at least seven rebounds in each of the five games against Chicago and is averaging 10 rebounds per night for the series. He was also the first player to arrive in support of Matthew Dellavedova when a chippy exchange under the basket resulted in a Taj Gibson kick and subsequent ejection during the second half.
“He made a decision to do what he did,” Thompson said of Gibson. “We know we have to have each other’s back, to have our brother’s back. We used it as motivation to pick up our level and I think we responded pretty well.”
The Cavaliers did respond well initially—building a 92-75 lead following the ejection—but just as it’s been throughout the series, Chicago punched back. The Bulls answered with an 11-0 run keyed by big shots from Jimmy Butler during the fourth quarter to trim the Cavs advantage to 101-99 with 1:18 remaining. But even though the Cavaliers pulled away to give themselves two chances now to punch their ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals, Thompson knows the battle with the Bulls is far from over.
“It’s the Playoffs,” Thompson added. “You’re playing against the Bulls, a hard-nosed team, a team that’s going to hit you so you have to be able to withstand that and you have to throw the first punch. Because if they hit you first, they’re just going to keep attacking. So we just have to be ready. We have another one in Chicago and we have to be ready to throw the first blow.”
If Thompson, James and the Cavaliers deliver the first blow early on Thursday it may prove to be the final one. With Pau Gasol injured and questionable heading into Game 6—and Gibson potentially facing a suspension—you have to wonder how much fight Chicago has left. Regardless, though, Thompson’s mentality remains the same—see ball, get ball, and do whatever it takes to help James and company survive and advance.
Brendan Bowers is an NBA writer who covers the Cavaliers and the NBA in Cleveland for SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @BowersCLE. Image via Getty.