It is difficult to gauge how Tristan Thompson is playing in the NBA Finals based on his box score numbers. Which is fitting, because that's exactly the way it's been all year. After adjusting nicely to life as a role player during the regular season, the Cavs' fourth year big man has started every game since Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, averaging 9.4 points, 12.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game over that stretch.
Thompson's output in the Finals has been particularly resistant to straightforward analysis. He's made just one field goal in two games (one-for-nine total), and has 4 points, 2 steals, 2 blocks and 1 assist in 86:38 of floor time. Tristan is currently dead last on the team in Net Rating during the Finals (minus-19.3 points per 100 possessions), including a whopping minus-21 total in the Cavs' Game 2 victory. So how is it that he's earning mostly positive reviews for his play from announcers and fans alike?
For one thing, he's the most dominant rebounder in the series. He's grabbed 13 offensive rebounds across two games, helping the Cavs dictate the pace by dominating time of possession, an extremely important part of Cleveland's strategy. Overall, Thompson is grabbing 15.1% of available offensive boards and 20.5% of defensive rebounds, for a total rebounding rate of 17.7%, the best mark in the series:
Secondly, Tristan has been able to hold his own when he finds himself switched onto the elite Warrior guards. This enables Matthew Dellavedova, for example, to go over screens to bother Steph Curry without worrying about the ramifications if Delly gets hung up on the pick, or if the MVP decides to drive. Numerous times in Game 2, Thompson found himself one on one with either Curry, Klay Thompson, or Andre Iguodala, and while the results weren't perfect (more on that in a minute), there was a lot more good than bad:
When Tristan and Timofey Mozgov are on the floor together, the Cleveland has a big who can comfortably switch onto wings (Tristan) and a true rim-protecting center (Mozgov), a terrific combination to build their defense upon. But in Game 2, both of the teams' true centers sort of disappeared after halftime; Mozgov played 10 of 29 possible minutes, and none of the final 18:50, while Bogut was on the court for just 9 minutes, including none in overtime.
Thanks in large part to Mozgov's absence, the Warriors shot 5-of-5 in the restricted area in the fourth quarter of Game 2. Of course, not all of those buckets are Tristan's fault; he was on the bench for one of them, and if Golden State is playing Draymond Green at center and brings him out to set the pick, Cleveland's backside help is more responsible than Tristan for guarding the paint. But the point stands: if the teams' centers aren't going to play late in games, the Cavs will need Thompson to protect the rim whenever possible, something that didn't go so well in Game 2:
While it's hard to fault Tristan too much for failing to crack double digit points in the Finals, Cleveland needs all the non-LeBron generated offense it can get right now. Most of the time, Thompson smartly looks to get the ball back to a ball handler when he grabs an offensive board, but in the Finals, his putbacks and other shot attempts on offensive rebounds aren't falling at all. He's also had issues catching interior passes; an early Game 2 turnover was credited to LeBron, but could've easily been his. As Golden State's defense shifts to stymie James' drives, Tristan's ability to catch (and finish) dump-offs and other shots in the paint will be important.
While his poor shooting and subpar rim protection late in Game 2 are legitimate criticisms, Thompson's rebounding and ability to hold his own when caught in a defensive switch with Golden State's quick guards have stood out as important tools for Cleveland. But if Cleveland hopes to win it all, they'll need the big man most likely to be on the court in crunch time to come through when it matters most.