CLEVELAND — With less than five minutes to go and the Boston Celtics cutting the Cleveland Cavaliers' 19-point lead to single digits, Tristan Thompson corralled a pass at the top of the key, pump-faked to LeBron James at the left wing and drove to the rim. Celtics forward Marcus Smart peeled off of James and overplayed Thompson on his way to the rim. The lane was there, but the result was a missed layup attempt off the front of the iron as Thompson opted to try to lay it in lightly.
While the result of the shot was less than ideal, it would be what LeBron said to Thompson in the team's huddle shortly after that miss.
"He told me, 'Double-T, you're playing your ass off tonight," Thompson said of the moment. "'If he's going to overplay, attack the rim. Finish it. You deserve it.'"
It would have been easy for James to bark at Thompson as the 6'9" center unfurled an uncharacteristic dribble-drive in a high-leverage situation. Many leaders of NBA lore have been known to use these moments to force the ball in their direction late in games. Instead, James doubled down on his teammate, telling him to take that opportunity if it were to again present itself but to simply throw it down with more authority.
When the clock showed zeroes, the Cavs came away with a 111-102 win, holding the Celtics to 41.2 percent shooting from the floor. It was the second win in as many games where the Cavaliers led with defense, and Thompson—serving as the team's last line—has been a substantial reason for this improvement.
"Listen, Tristan has been everything for our defense," James told Bleacher Report following the win. "Since he got back into the rotation, and got back into the starting lineup, he's who we've grown to know for the last four years."
As James inferred, the season hasn't been easy for Thompson. Injuries, off-court headlines and a rotation in constant flux led to Thompson producing his lowest PER season since his strike-shortened rookie year. His offensive and defensive efficiency dropped. It was also Thompson's name in the mix during the deadline, as the Cavaliers were rumored to be interested in Los Angeles' DeAndre Jordan with Thompson's name being on the outgoing end. And though he would not be dealt, the midseason addition of Larry Nance Jr. had him on the outside looking in as Kevin Love was cemented in at the starting center spot, and both Thompson and Nance boast similar skill sets.
Be that as it may, Thompson went from playing just two minutes in Cleveland's first game against Indiana to logging 34 minutes and a double-double in a decisive Game 7. The Cavaliers' matchup against Toronto limited Thompson's per-game minutes to the teens, but a Conference Finals pairing with a familiar foe has left him salivating.
As a team, the last two games between the Celtics and the Cavaliers have provided a stark contrast to the first two, largely in part to Thompson's effectiveness on Boston center Al Horford. Horford totaled 20 points on 10 shots in Game 1, having his way with the Cavs' small-ball defense that predominantly featured Kevin Love at center. In Games 2 and 3 with Thompson inserted into the starting five, Horford averaged just 11 points per night, going a combined 7-of-17 from the floor.
This juxtaposition is nothing new in the world of Horford and Thompson. Thompson's presence on the offensive glass and ability to switch in pick-and-roll situations have long made him a bane of opposing head coaches, but this magnifies when Horford is involved.
In the five-game series between the Cavs and Celtics in 2016-17, Horford was a minus-16 in the 31 minutes with Thompson off of the floor, shooting 72.7 percent. In the 134 minutes when Thompson was on the floor, Horford was minus-81, held to just 39 percent shooting—his field goal percentage at the rim clocking in at just 42.9 percent. Fast forward to Games 1 through 4 of the current Cavaliers series against the Celtics, and Horford has shot worse, hitting 33.3 percent of his field goals with Thompson on the floor.
More telling has been the stifling efforts of Thompson on the defensive end as Horford has taken 11 shots per game, but more than half of these attempts have come during the 29 percent of playing time when Thompson has been on the Cavaliers' bench.
"You put your hard hat on," Thompson said postgame about defending Horford over the course of the last few seasons. "To be a part of something special, you have to be a puzzle piece. And for me, my job is to come in, play hard, come in and punch the clock, do things that might not show up in the stat sheet, and work my tail off every game."
Thompson has taken lessons from James as well as teammate Kendrick Perkins—"Perk always say the job of a big man is to bring toughness," he said on Monday night—and has helped share his knowledge with the rest of the Cavaliers.
During timeouts, Thompson can be seen working with Nance Jr., his competition of sorts, helping him notice certain nuances of the game. Thompson and Nance are similar in age, but one player is getting his first taste of playoff experience, while the other has won a title and parlayed his playoff resume into moments where his head coach and teammates are willing to rely on him despite his roller coaster of a regular season.
"Tristan, when he's rebounding the basketball, [recording] big blocks, finishing at the rim—those are big plays for us," Lue said to Bleacher Report of Thompson. "Those are huge, especially at home getting the crowd into it."
Despite the various incarnations of their roster over the last several seasons, the Cleveland Cavaliers have always managed to have that one energy guy. A player who manages to utilize his skill set in a way to permeate through the rest of the team in a form of a contagious fuel. One who can turn a dive, block or charge into a momentum-shifting sequence.
During LeBron James' first tenure with the Cavaliers into the 2015-16 season, that guy was Anderson Varejao, the wild-haired Brazilian big man who played with a hint of reckless abandon. Andy effectively handed the baton to Matthew Dellavedova, the Aussie guard who played so hard in the 2015 NBA Finals he spent the night after the game with an IV attached to his arm having suffered from dehydration.
This season, though it took an entire regular season and six games into the first round of the playoffs to have him bubble up, the Cavs have their adrenaline infusion thanks to Thompson.
"[He's] always taking the one-on-one challenge," James told Bleacher Report. "He has a toughness about him not only offensively, but more importantly defensively versus anybody. He'll guard anybody. I'm not saying they won't score on him, but he'll always take the challenge and won't shy away from any competition. He's been great this postseason."