Larry Nance Jr. was out the Cavaliers’ plans. With Cleveland starting the playoffs with Kevin Love as the team’s starting five, and then Tristan Thompson’s reemergence as a force in Game 7 against the Pacers and in the Raptors series, there wasn’t much room for Nance. So, after playing in all seven games of the first round, Nance racked up two DNPs against the Raptors and only played a three minutes and 53 seconds — all in garbage time — of Game 1 against the Celtics.
That, though, has changed. As the Cavs have gone away from Love at center — Lue has only used Love as a five for short stretches since Game 2 — Nance is playing more and more. He’s still playing a wide-range of minutes — he went from playing 21 minutes in Game 3 to 10 minutes in Game 4 to just under 17 minutes in Game 5 — but he’s back in Tyronn Lue’s plans. With so much Lue’s defensive schemes centered around putting a big who isn’t Love guarding Horford — meaning the Cavs are basically always playing a center — Nance had to play unless, for some reason, Lue thought Ante Zizic or Kendrick Perkins were better options. (Spoiler alert: they are not.)
“The reason why he didn’t play was it was hard to play two centers off the bench when Larry was coming off the bench. It’s hard to play two fives off the bench,” Lue said after Game 4. “When Tristan is starting, Larry is getting his opportunity and he’s making the most of it.”
What Nance has done to make an impact is basically do what he does well. He runs the floor well, usually ending up in a position where he at least has a chance to make a play. Here, for example, Nance prevents a Jayson Tatum bucket his turnover would have by basically hustling back and not trying to do too much:
Later, he sets up a Kyle Korver three-pointer in the most on-brand way possible. After he passes to Korver at the top of the key, he moves his way back towards the rim through the middle of the paint — unchecked by multiple Celtics — collects Korver’s miss, dribbles it out and feeds Korver for another three-point attempt. And Korver makes this one. As it turns out seconds chances that lead to open three-pointers for that guy are good thing:
And here he defends a Jaylen Brown drive perfectly, forcing a jump ball. And if he doesn’t get his arms up stop Brown, who looked to be trying to draw a foul and not scoring or passing, Aaron Baynes is there for a quick pass and likely two paints, as LeBron failed to establish inside position:
“His verticality and blocked shots at the rim, his pick-and-roll ability and the ability to roll and create — if they pull in, we get threes; if they don’t, he gets lobs and dunks or the pass for finishes,” Lue said. “So just his effort, being able to rebound the basketball, bring it out on the dribble. He does a lot of things at the five position. So he’s definitely earned my true.”
All that’s really missing from his highlight real is him dunking on someone, and he came close to crushing Aaron Baynes in Game 5. The Cavs have also tried a few times to throw him lobs in the pick-and-roll — it just hasn’t worked.
Nance’s numbers are mostly good too. In the 24 minutes he’s played vs. the Celtics when Horford is also on the floor, Boston has an offensive rating of 93.7, per nba.com/stats (The Cavs’ offensive rating in the same minutes, though, is just 82.1.) Comparatively, in the minutes where Thompson is on the floor vs. Horford is 106.7. Horford is 5-9 shooting overall with Nance on the floor — compared to his 9-27 mark vs. Thompson, per nba.com/stats — so he hasn’t been perfect. But he competes and taken on a Thompson-esque role in a series where Thompson has been essential.
“Me and Larry work out together before and after practice, built that relationship and chemistry,” Thompson said at Monday’s practice. “I’m happy for him. He’s a really good player. Whether he’s in the game or I’m in the game, we’re going to bring that energy, that toughness and athleticism.”
There is a limit on what Nance playing well means for the Cavs. They are still down 3-2 to the Celtics. He’s not a Korver who is going to get going and make a flurry of threes to help the Cleveland offense solve its math problem. He’s not an engaged J.R. Smith who can get hot and swing the momentum of the game in the Cavs’ favor. And because he’s not a shooter, even out to 18-feet where he flashed a solid jumper after being acquired at the trade deadline, he can cramp spacing a bit, particularly when he’s on the floor with Thompson and/or Jeff Green.
But the Cavs do need Nance. Whether he plays 10 minutes or 20, they need bodies who compete and contribute like he has been.
“I think he sees what it takes,” Lue said after Game 4. “One thing about Larry — you’re going to get effort. You’re going to get toughness. He’s not afraid. I think now sitting out for a few games and then coming back, I think he sees what it takes. He did a good job of keeping his body in shape, playing five-on-five with the guys. The game has slowed down. He understands what it takes, what we need to do and he’s been great.”