Whether they win Game 7 or turn back into pumpkins on Sunday, the Cleveland Cavaliers have already put in a better effort than they did in last year’s Finals. Even though they got extinguished like a bug against a fly zapper in the series’ opening games in Oakland, they’re back again for Game 7 with all the momentum. To be clear, this is mostly due to the fact that LeBron James is playing like a minor deity, but these Cavaliers are better across the board.
Kyrie Irving has been incredible since the Cavaliers left Oakland and shook off whatever bizarre hex they were under. He’s finally succeeded with the Cavs’ second-most important objective on offense, which is to make Steph Curry tired. However, I’m not entirely sure he is the Cavs’ second-best player right now; that distinction, for my money, goes to Tristan Thompson.
Last night, Thompson had a perfect Tristan Thompson game. He gives the Cavaliers an answer to a question nobody else has been able to puzzle their way through, a way to keep pace with the Warriors’ killer small lineup. The Warriors’ go-to counterpunch that no team has found a way to match all season has been the “Death Lineup,” which features Andre Iguodala stepping in for Andrew Bogut and pushing Draymond Green to the center. Green is both adept enough as an ad-hoc point guard and a burly post defender, so that the lineup makes them deadly on offense without littering them with the kind of defensive liabilities that, say, the Celtics have when they go small. Thompson is a nasty wrench in this smug Golden State plan for dominance.
He is one of the maybe five or six big men in the league who can switch out on Steph Curry and not immediately give up an easy three (look at Kevin Love’s effortful floundering to see what a normal power forward looks like on Curry). Theoretically, the lineup forces you to choose to go small and get beat by Green or go big and risk death by Steph Curry. Thompson can both hang with Curry (as much as anyone can, which is to say, not every time) as well as punish Green on the other end. He’s not a post player, and he doesn’t really shoot jumpers the way he did before LeBron arrived. But he’s a perfect alley-oop muse for James (the best passer in this series), and having him keep Green honest looks like a legitimately effective strategy. Here, look at his shot chart from last night.
The man had 15 points simply by being taller than Green, running to the rim, and catching the great passes LeBron tossed to him all game. He only took six “shots” to get his 15.
Throw in his incredible rebounding ability, and Thompson has presented the Warriors’ most terrifying setup with a problem of their own. When they roll out the death lineup against the Cavs’ Kyrie-J.R.-Tristan-LeBron-(Love/Richard Jefferson) group, they leave themselves open to both LeBron posting Curry up or Thompson dunking on dude’s heads. Not only do all the best Cavs lineups feature Tristan Thompson at center, they haven’t been good when he’s not on the floor. Plus/Minus is a caveat-laden stat, but his game-high +32 is an accurate indicator of the effect he can have on the game. The Cavaliers are not going to win Game 7 because Tristan Thompson goes off for 30 or anything like that, but they will lose it if he doesn’t give them the ability to deal with the Warriors most ferocious lineup.