The ball fizzes around the Cavs perimeter – from LeBron to Kyrie back to LeBron, inside to Love, back outside to J.R., nothing easy, back inside to Thompson, outside to Love who’s jammed up, to LeBron who’s drive is stunted, to Kyrie who’s smothered as well but jacks up the shot.
24 seconds of great team defence by the Raptors and – clang – the ball hits back iron. That’s where Tristan Thompson comes banging in for the most demoralizing play in basketball – the offensive rebound.
It can be back breaking for teams to sustain such defensive effort only to give the ball away again and that’s Thompson’s specialty.
“That’s what you need to do to win,” Thompson says, freshly dressed in the visitors locker room in Toronto following a 116-112 victory over the Raptors.
“When you look at all the great teams they all had a guy like that and they’ve had some pretty good careers – Dennis Rodman, Horace Grant, Ben Wallace.”
As a defensive and rebounding specialist on a team stocked with offensive weapons Thompson continues to work his groove coming off his first NBA title.
He’s also had to adjust to his redefined role with seven-footer Timofey Mozgov jettisoned to the Lakers this offseason.
Averaging a career-high 9.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks, he’s also sacrificed with a career-low 6.7 points per game, that come efficiently where he leads the NBA in field goal percentage this season at 63%.
“Tristan’s really had his way with us,” says Raptors coach Dwane Casey. “I think he’s averaging about 13 rebounds per game against us. He’s doing a good job of catching the ball, making plays, crashing the offensive boards, he does a great job of knowing his role and they’re not running any plays for him and he knows that and accepts that. His go-to play is the offensive boards and he knows that and makes the most of that.”
Tristan Thompson shot a combined 12-13 in the first two matchups with his hometown Raptors this season, both Cleveland wins. The two teams won’t play again until the final game of the regular season. Both games TT double-doubled averaging 13 points and 10.5 boards in 33 minutes and added another 6 points, 14 rebounds in this latest win.
“Tristan’s going to be Tristan – he’s always going to be a great rebounder, clearing a lot of room,” said Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue.
Rebounding comes naturally for Thompson, sure, but remember he works hard at his craft. He once switched his shooting hand and must be the only entry on Basketball Reference to have a strikethrough on his shooting hand category.
He’s also developed as a perimeter defender and takes pride in stopping guards when he switches on screens – a big reason for the Cavs defensive versatility.
Perhaps the most memorable image of a Cavs big man switching out onto a guard and containing him was last season’s crucial stop by Thompson’s frontcourt mate Kevin Love on Steph Curry as the seconds would down on Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
Cory Joseph has a unique perspective as an NBA guard, former NCAA teammate at Texas, longtime Ontario team alumni, and summer circuit running mate with Canada.
“I think he uses his length well, his long arms give him a good amount of space so guys can’t blow by but at the same time can’t get a clean look at the basket to get the shot off,” says the Raptor guard Joseph. “He has good lateral quickness and quick on his feet so he could stay in front of the guards and he’s pretty smart – he won’t get baited into a lot of stuff.”
Though longtime friends, Joseph and Thompson won’t necessarily hang out when TT comes to town: “We see each other during shootaround and say what’s up but when we get on the court we’re going at each others’ necks and trying to win the game.”
Thompson’s more likely to be found among his Cavalier brothers – though he is dating a Kardashian – a bond tightened by surviving through seasons and solidified in belief at having come back from a 3-1 deficit in last years’ NBA Finals. And Thompson wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I think it’s huge having that togetherness on and off the court goes a long way. For me it’s just doing my job what I bring to the table is my activity and playing hard and competing. On a Championship calibre team everybody brings different things and for me that’s just the grit and the toughness,” says Thompson.
“I’m happy what I’m doing right now, we’re winning games, leading the East, going for another Championship, it doesn’t get any better than that.”