In the fourth quarter of Game 3 and Game 4, the Cavaliers starting frontcourt played all of just one possession each, about 26 seconds of play. In both games, Tyronn Lue opted for the three-point shooting of Channing Frye and either the perimeter defense of Iman Shumpert or the surprisingly versatile 3-4 hybrid of Richard Jefferson. In the span of those 24 minutes, the Cavaliers were outscored, 22-14, and fell short of a comeback 30-27, with just 2 offensive rebounds on 18 missed attempts.
Lue was right to question the ability of Thompson and Love to close out these games. Love shot 5-of-23, and Thompson was 1-of-4. Bismack Biyombo was out playing Thompson on the boards all game, and had a block on Love in Game 4 that may have launched a Dikembe Mutumbo copyright infringement civil suit. As Trevor articulated so well, there are reasons Biyombo played so well in Toronto and ways to contain him going forward. Because Thompson isn't a threat outside 8 feet of the basket, he's not an ideal ball screener compared to Frye or Love. And because Love has been so cold from the field, that choice has been even easier to make.
But despite what Biyombo has done on the glass against Thompson, and despite Love's shooting slump, there is still an argument to be made for rolling with the guys that got you here. They are the best offensive rebounders that the team has. Together, on the court, they averaged 9 of the teams 13.5 offensive rebounds per 100 possessions compared to 8.6 while both are off the court (per NBAwowy.com). With just one on the court, those numbers still hold. With just Thompson (12.6 ORR vs 10.0 ORR) or Love (12.3 ORR vs 10.3 ORR) on the court, the team averages two more offensive rebounds per 100 possessions.
Against the Raptors in the Playoffs, those numbers are unfortunately reversed. With Love and Thompson off the court, the team averages 13.1 offensive rebounds per 100 possessions and 9.2 with them both on the court. Talk about the dangers of a 61-minute data set. But what small data can't say, the eye test has made pretty clear, they haven't played well.
Heading into Game 5, however, it may be time to trust Thompson and Love again. They aren't great right now, but they have been and they can be. They are a part of a starting unit that was undefeated up until that road trip to Toronto and averaged the most rebounds per game of any lineup in the playoffs against some decent competition on the boards (Andre Drummond, Al Horford, and Paul Millsap). It's a question and a thought that is defended by player averages and season averages instead of the outcomes of a couple games, and there isn't a clear answer. Trusting your starters can have one of two outcomes, and there is almost no room for error in a Game 5. Either you are right to trust them, you weathered the slump and were right to believe in your players. They finally show up to play, Love hits three-pointers at a rate closer to his 42.5 percent average, Thompson repositions himself against Biyombo to start winning rebounds, and they quiet the Raptors momentum. Or you are wrong to trust them and look like a stubborn coach that failed to adapt in a series.
But here is what I'll say in defense of Thompson and Love. They won't be able to prove anyone wrong unless Lue is able to trust them to try in the fourth quarter. Benching them has worked half the time in terms of points, but hasn't gotten the Cavaliers a win. I doubt they will be pulled from the starting lineup, so why should they be pulled from the final minutes of a game? Believing in the players that got you there, and putting confidence in their ability to turn it around, is maybe just the extra push they need to go out there and do it. Just look what Casey's belief in Kyle Lowry after an awful start to the playoffs got Toronto: two wins in the Eastern Conference Finals.
And even if they don't pull it out, do you want to go down with your two best players, a three-point shooter and a elite rebounder, trying to win or watching on the bench? That's a question without a clear answer, and a decision Lue has to make that I don't envy.