OAKLAND, Calif. – Over the Cleveland Cavaliers’ three consecutive trips to the Finals, across 246 regular-season games and a total of nine preliminary rounds to get there, Tristan Thompson’s role has been honed to perfection.
Thompson, 26, is part motor, part pest. He’s an irritant on the offensive glass. He keeps alive possessions and exasperates the defenses, all of which makes him a presentable-to-meet-the-parents version of Dennis Rodman.
The job that Rodman, rainbow-coiffed and multiply pierced, did for the Chicago Bulls in their three championship seasons from 1996 through 1998, is the job Cleveland has carved out for Thompson. And he’s been exceedingly consistent in it, which made his performance in Game 1 against Golden State so confounding for the Cavs.
Over the past three seasons, Thompson averaged 8.1 points and 8.7 rebounds, with 3.4 coming on the offensive end. He’s taken only 5.6 shots per game but made 57.7 percent.
You can pretty much overlay his postseason statistics and see them line up: 8.2 ppg and 9.6 rpg (4.2 offensive boards). Thompson has averaged 5.4 field-goal attempts and hit 55.3 percent.
That’s why his no-show performance Thursday – scoreless in 22 minutes 25 seconds, missing his three shots and grabbing only four rebounds – was so glaring. Want to know how many times Thompson has posted such low-impact stats previously in his career, while playing at least as many minutes? Just once: He went scoreless in 25 minutes against Atlanta back in November, managing just two rebounds.
And that’s it, in the 520 NBA games Thompson had played before Thursday, regular or postseason.
“Trash. Trash,” Thompson said Saturday, asked before Cleveland’s workout for his opinion of his play. “I have to be better. I have to bring more energy, make it tough for them. I know they're watching film, and something for them it's to keep me off the glass. It's going to be a wrestling match down there, and you have to keep it going and make it tough for them and just try to wear them out.”
The Warriors know how valuable Thompson is to Cleveland in chasing down their misses or finishing the occasional alley-oop, and they did well in using Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee to thwart him. The Cavs’ best adjustment?
“Make them run a lot of pick-and-rolls,” Thompson said. “Just take it to another level. Playing against the Warriors, you can't just play hard. You have to play hard to a level where it's past the thermostat. It's a different level with this team. So guys have to be reminded -- I have to be reminded -- that against this team, you have to go balls out.”
Thompson’s coach framed his answer a bit differently.
“He's going to be fine,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “They're doing a good job of hitting him with two or three bodies to keep him off the offensive glass. But with him running the floor, with his will, with his passion for the game, he's going to be fine. So we're not worried about Tristan.”
LeBron James, when asked what Thompson needed to do, simply said: “Be himself.”
Chasing after offensive rebounds can be a dicey proposition against this opponent. Golden State scored 27 points on fast breaks, so the temptation is to get all five Cavaliers backpedaling as soon as one of them shoots.
It’s a fine line, but one that Thompson has walked with great success in the past.
“With the Warriors' fast breaks, I don't think it's when we take a shot – it’s more our turnovers,” he said. “Our turnovers [20 in Game 1] is what's leading to Kevin [Durant] getting down the lane and getting fast-break points or Steph [Curry] or Klay [Thompson] getting open threes in transition.
“If we're attacking the rim and our teammate misses, I can still attack the glass. I feel that part of our offense is me getting offensive rebounds and creating second opportunities for them. I'm not going to stop doing that.
“But if I hit the glass and don't get it, I have to make sure that I sprint back.”
It’s what Thompson does, except on that rare night he doesn’t.
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