Tristan Thompson 1, Kardashians 0. This might be the true measurement of how the Cleveland Cavaliers are doing in this series. If this keeps up – if Thompson’s name gets mentioned more because of his performance and less as part of a punch-line built around his personal and social media life, then things are going nicely for the Cavaliers.
You know: the way they usually go when they play the Toronto Raptors in the playoffs.
That’s twice now in a little more than 48-hour period that Thompson has reminded people that LeBron James isn’t the only player on the Cavaliers with a ring. The Toronto native helped swing the balance of Sunday’s seventh and deciding game against the Indiana Pacers. Tuesday night, in his hometown, he logged 26 significant minutes on a night when the Cavaliers didn’t hold the lead until Kyle Korver’s three-pointer in overtime. Someone told J.R. Smith that James hasn’t won a post-season game like that before.
“Here you get to be a part of a lot of records,” said Smith, chuckling. “I’m just fortunate to be a witness to it.”
Smith, a holdover from the 2015-16 champion Cavaliers, was much more than a witness, finishing with 20 points on a night when James was just 12-for-30 shooting, including 3-for-11 in the fourth quarter and 0-for-4 in overtime. Kevin Love, another holdover, had 13 rebounds despite a horrible shooting night while Thompson was 5-for-8 from the field, 4-for-4 from the line and pulled down nine offensive rebounds. On a night when the way to victory for the Raptors seemed to lie through Jonas Valanciunas, Thompson and Love tag-teamed him at the offensive and defensive ends, respectively. Valanciunas had just four boards in the fourth quarter and one in overtime.
Thompson didn’t see the floor in Games 2, 3 or 5 of the Pacers series and played just 23 minutes in Games 1, 4 and 6. But he started Game 7 and played 35 minutes, with 15 points, 10 boards and a game-saving stuff underneath his own basket. He didn’t start Game 1 of this series, either, and when he was asked if he’d lobby his head coach for a start in Game 2, he turned all ‘Employee Number 13.’ Thompson claimed his biggest concern was not getting dinged with the $100 club fine for biting on DeMar DeRozan’s fakes, and as he said that, he and George Hill, whose stall in the visitors locker room is next to Thompson’s, both knocked on wood.
“My job is to come in and play when my number’s called,” said Thompson, who didn’t play a second in the second quarter. “That’s what I’m going to do.”
Said Lue: “I like his impact off the bench. Just his physicality, the way he can change a game with offensive rebounding. I just think playing in three straight finals and long seasons, he knows what’s at stake now that the games mean something. Those offensive rebounds gave us extra possessions. He’s been a professional: sat back, waited his turn and kept his body right.”
Funny how at a time when the NBA is all about position-less basketball and three-point shots, so much of what transpired in Game 1 involved big men. The Cavaliers didn’t have much time to prepare, but Thompson made it clear that with the time they did have there was considerable discussion about Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam. “We knew they’d played well (against the Washington Wizards),” said Thompson, “and that meant there would be opportunities for us.” Love, who is much more comfortable playing the four, said he was told Monday afternoon by Lue that he, too, would be seeing a fair amount of Valanciunas. “Ty sees something different,” said Love. “And I think it’s the type of thing that if I can get my offence going, might actually work to my advantage.”
Thompson said his plan with Valanciunas was simple. “If I can get him just a couple of inches away from his comfort zone ….,” he said, his voice trailing off. “I think people are starting to understand verticality a little more. If you can’t block the shot, make him think twice or change his shot.”
This is a city that normally treats its NBA offspring to appreciative welcomes. But Thompson was booed when his name was announced as he entered the game. The guess here is he’ll take it; the guess here is being a target for his play beats the hell out of being a punch-line or a participant in some twisted reality, whether it’s his or someone else’s doing. Must feel like old times. Must be Cavaliers vs. Raptors. Must be playoffs.