Sports Basketball

NBA FINALS

Tristan Thompson's contribution to Cavs title shouldn't be overlooked

By Ryan Wolstat, Toronto Sun

Tristan Thompson of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts while taking on the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals.  (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images/AFP)

Tristan Thompson of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts while taking on the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images/AFP)

OAKLAND — LeBron James and Stephen Curry will get the bulk of the attention — good and bad — following one of the most memorable finishes in NBA history, Cleveland’s 93-89 Game 7 title win late Sunday evening, but Tristan Thompson deserves his share of the spotlight as well.

Thompson was the best rebounder in the series, the best pick-and-roll defender, a major key to knocking off the mighty Warriors and right there with James overall defensively, besting even defensive player of the year runner-up Draymond Green.

He was a load, the most impactful Canadian ever on a championship squad.

Not bad for a guy many Cavaliers fans had had their doubts about when he was taken No. 4 overall in 2011, just ahead of another quality player and a true centre in Jonas Valanciunas, who had been regarded as a more ideal fit.

Forget that talk. James and Kyrie Irving brought Cleveland its long-awaited title, but they don’t get by Golden State without Thompson’s historic-level rebounding and his ability to switch all over the floor on defence.

“There’s a reason why the Cavs paid him that money,” giddy Cleveland assistant coach Phil Handy told Postmedia in a champagne-soaked Cavs locker room about an hour after the championship trophy had been raised.

Thompson held out back in October, before agreeing to a five-year, $82-million extension that many questioned, but the Cavs knew the unique value he brought to the team and how much he would help down the line against either the Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder, or San Antonio Spurs.

“He’s a horse, hard worker. Probably the only player in NBA history to switch hands after he starts a pro career,” Handy said. “A modern-day Dennis Rodman.”

If that last part seems a stretch, Thompson has averaged 4.2 offensive rebounds per game over his two playoff years, the third-most ever, 0.5 a game more than Rodman averaged and they both averaged 9.9 boards a game in the post-season and the same offensive rebound percentage.

Most importantly for Thompson, he joins good friend Cory Joseph as a rare Canadian NBA champion.

“It’s a great feeling. Cory got it done, I got it done now, and now I want another one,” Thompson told Postmedia in a quiet moment as the new household name in America went to do a live hit on ESPN’s Sportscenter.

“When we were down 3-1, that’s when everyone had the questions. We never gave up on each other, we knew at the end of the day we had to come back to Cleveland, so might as well come back with a win. We believed in each other, and that’s what we did. We made history.”

That they did, becoming the first team to rally from a 3-1 deficit at the Finals.

NEVER BETTER

Cavs veteran James Jones has teamed with LeBron for all but one of his seven Finals runs, so there aren’t many people better equipped to judge the caliber of James’ play.

That’s why, having spotted Jones by himself outside of Cleveland’s locker room, I had to ask him if he has ever seen James play better?

“It’s tough to match what he did in this series, man, he was amazing, absolutely amazing,” Jones said. “He impacted every facet of the game for us. He played at a high pace, I don’t know what his thoughts are, but I think right now, what I’ve seen from him this series, this is the best basketball he’s played in his career.”

In addition to posting his second-best scoring and rebounding numbers at a Finals, James had more assists than ever before and averaged a ridiculous 2.3 blocks and 2.6 steals, after posting averages of 0.6 and 1.8 in his past six trips.

OUT ON TOP

Richard Jefferson thought it would be easy when he made the Finals each of his first two years in the NBA.

He didn’t get back until Year 15 and was amongst the most appreciative of the victors — for obvious reasons — and was extremely gracious.

“They gave us everything they possibly could and one shot here, one shot there, there’s no difference between the two of our teams, there’s literally one shot tonight goes either way, one free throw, one call and they’re the champion and all of a sudden, people are talking about, ‘Oh, Cleveland blew it.’ No, it’s literally that close, neither team was that dominant,” Jefferson said.

The forward sat down the stretch with Kevin Love finally finding his game at both ends of the floor.

“I came out of the game with a tied score, with three minutes to go and that’s the most helpless feeling you can ever be in. Coach (Tyronn) Lue did a great job. Kevin had played far better than I had, he had made the plays that was needed, even the defensive play,” Jefferson said. “Coach Lue made the right play, subbed me out, I’m sitting on the bench, with three minutes to go and my whole career is in other people’s hands, like that’s a real crazy feeling.”

Unprompted, Jefferson then announced to the small scrum that he was retiring.

“I will enjoy my life. I’m done, I’m done, I’m sick of this s---, I’m tired, too old for this s---,” Jefferson said, laughing the whole time, adding it was “a good way to go out.”

FEELING THE PAIN

“I wish we won. I wish we won,” Festus Ezeli repeated in a hushed Warriors locker room after the game. “I wish I brought more to the table myself, personally. I can’t speak for anyone else, just bad attention to detail.”

Ezeli was a surprise starter and had a brutal game.

“I’m kind of a little pissed off, but, at the same time, I love these guys, we win together, we lose together, that’s the motto of our team and I’m proud to have been in this situation with these guys.

“Give us three games to win one, we expected to win any one of them. Just never got it going, never got into a flow.”

Ezeli was asked whether the team’s record 73 regular-season wins will be marred by the loss.

“(73) stands alone. It’s something that nobody else has accomplished. It is what it is, we won the most regular-season games. We were hoping to go off with a championship, we had a chance to, but we didn’t. Definitely can’t hang our heads, it just was not our time. Hopefully they will be more of these situations and we can learn from what transpired today.”

AROUND THE RIM

Definition of confidence: Cavs coach Lue before Game 7 simply knowing James would deliver: “We’ve got to continue to ride him. He’s going to continue to play well.” Yep. According to Statmuse.com, James has five Finals games with at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, as many as every other player combined since 1970. Think about this, for the second half of the series, James basically quarterbacked Cleveland’s offence as a point-forward and its defence as a centre and Green did similar things. You might never see two players that unique squaring off at the Finals again … Have to love Green’s attitude. He almost notched a triple-double himself, but said he would have rather done nothing, taken the heat for it and won another championship. Now, he’ll be a goat forever … Spotted Cleveland native Charles Oakley giving Warriors coach and former Cav Steve Kerr a hug after a dejected Kerr had left his post-game availability.

@WolstatSun