Tristan Thompson earning his money against Al Horford

Tyronn Lue's reliable match-up proving dividends again

Alex Hooper
May 20, 2018 - 12:48 am
May 19, 2018; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson (13) rebounds the ball in front of Boston Celtics forward Al Horford (42) during the second half in game three of the Eastern conference finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Quick

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports


Cleveland, OH (92.3 The Fan) – The past seven months have assuredly not been the best for Tristan Thompson’s career, but if there were any way to rehabilitate his image on the court, it may come along with a Cavalier comeback in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The seven-year big from Toronto normally receives a ton of flack for not performing up to the five-year, $82 million contract he signed prior to the 2015-16 season. That was only exacerbated when Thompson fell out of the rotation at times in the 2017-18 campaign, but those who criticize the deal may fail to see the ways the 27-year-old earns those dollars.

If the Cavaliers make their fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals, he will have been a huge reason, and it is possible to earn every penny in just one season.

Thompson finished with just 10 points and 7 rebounds (3 offensive) in the Cavs’ 30-point win in Game 3, but was instrumental in locking down Celtics All-Star Al Horford. The Boston pivot took just four shot attempts in the game.

Thompson’s frontcourt mate Kevin Love certainly noticed.

“You’ve got to give a lot of credit to Tristan because Horford is really the one that makes them go,” Love said. “He can play a little bit of the point forward, he can do a lot of the intangibles that even for their team might not show up in the box score as well.”

The 6-foot-9 Thompson’s presence on Horford has always been an issue, dating back through the last three post-seasons when Horford’s teams had been eliminated by the Cavaliers. With Thompson as the primary defender of Horford in those series, the Florida product posted net ratings of -33, -25.9 and -8.4 while on the floor.

Head Coach Tyronn Lue stayed away from Thompson in Game 1, when the Celtics shellacked the Cavaliers to open the series. Horford was not-coincidentally 8-of-10 in that game. When Thompson came calling in Game 2, Horford was 5-of-13.

In Game 3, Horford was a complete non-factor.

“Tristan has always been great in stepping up and taking the challenge in any series,” Love added. “I think you’ve seen that here, just making minor adjustments, trying to make it tough for him and stepping up and playing the basketball we know he’s capable of.”

Even without Thompson on the floor as often in Game 1, Horford’s net rating in the series while Thompson is present currently sits at -10.7 over 59 minutes. In the 36 minutes Thompson has been sitting while Horford plays, his net rating is 27.5.

Despite being a big, Horford is often involved in much of the Celtics’ action at the top of the key, swinging the ball or making dribble hand-offs. Thompson has disrupted that greatly.

“Tristan is the kind of guy who is agile enough to get back on his shot when he pops to put ball pressure on him at the top of the key. Just try to make him uncomfortable,” Lue said. “Al is a good player so he's going to be able to score, but we just want to make it tough. I think Tristan is the best matchup for him for us to do that.”

There were many factors in Boston’s offensive struggles – shooting 6-of-22 from 3-point range, and LeBron James being infinitely more engaged off the ball among them – but Thompson’s disrupting the Celtics star inside and out was a big piece in Boston’s 92.5 oRTG, placing them in the 8th percentile for games played this season.