It’s been a difficult year for Tristan Thompson. After playing through injuries from February on last season, there was hope that a summer off would allow him to get back into form. That never materialized as he struggled to stay on the court, or be consistently effective while on it.
When the Cavs signed Thompson to his extension, his reliability was one of his biggest selling features. He improved every single season, was never hurt, and was one of the few who could never have their effort questioned. He would step up in the playoffs, and was absolutely essential to the 2016 championship. But after starting the 2016-17 season at a career-best level, injuries took a hold of him and that reliability all but vanished.
Then came the biggest moments of the season. Game 7 against the Indiana Pacers was a breakout party for Thompson. With the Cavs facing elimination, he came up with a 15-point, 10-rebound performance in a four-point win.
After that came a 2-0 hole against the Boston Celtics, with the team facing another must-win scenario. Once again Thompson has stepped up to the plate and helped swing the series.
When you look at this Celtics roster, Thompson is nearly the perfect player to limit what they do offensively. Al Horford acts as their hub offensively, and has been the driving force for all their success this postseason. But with Thompson on the floor, he becomes a far less impressive player.
On the surface, the counting stats in the matchup are very solid. Horford shoots 68.4 percent when Thompson sits, and 33.3 percent when he’s on the floor. But Horford’s ability to impact the game has never been about putting up large numbers. Where Thompson really impacts his game is by limiting his assertiveness.
Horford is somebody that almost always makes the right play. If there is an athletic defender on him, he isn’t going to try and force a tough shot off the dribble. He will give the ball up and continue playing within the flow of the team’s offense.
The problem is, without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, there is no reliable offensive hub outside of him. They need somebody to create against a set defense, and with Thompson on him, Horford has not been that guy. It’s not an indictment on him, rather an issue with roster construction brought on by injuries.
For the series, the Celtics have a -6.6 net rating when Horford and Thompson share the floor. That net rating jumps up to +30.7 when Horford plays without Thompson. Without Thompson, Horford assists on 28.6 percent of his teammates baskets. With Thompson? That number falls to 14.1 percent. Horford grabs 17.6 percent of available rebounds without Thompson, and 8.9 percent when they share the floor.
The most significant difference Thompson makes isn’t about stopping the fire in the Celtics engine. The signs were even there early in this series. In Game 1 Horford didn’t attempt a shot or gather a single rebound when they shared the floor. In the Celtics Game 2 blowout win, the Cavs had a positive net rating when they shared the floor.
Tyronn Lue has recognized that the Cavs can’t play with Kevin Love as the center when Horford is on the floor. He’s too good of a player and is able to expose that mismatch. Having Thompson or Larry Nance Jr. gives the Cavs long and athletic big men that are able to stay with him on all three levels offensively.
Even if they aren’t directly guarding him, they are able to provide effective help defense in a way that Love simply can’t. In Game 4 there were stretches where James or LeBron James were on Horford. Individually they don’t directly limit him in the same way Thompson does. But the help defense that was present by having a center on the floor allowed them to snuff out a lot of what they tried to run.
This shouldn’t be considered an indictment on Horford. He is a tremendous player that got Boston to this point and did so by outplaying stars like Joel Embiid along the way. If Irving and Hayward were there, they would probably alleviate the pressure and responsibility that he has. But they aren’t, so what Thompson can do to him is essential for the Cavs to have a shot at winning this series.