The Cleveland Cavaliers are up 3-2 in their second-round series against the Chicago Bulls despite Kevin Love being out, LeBron James not being quite at his best, Kyrie Irving being hobbled and J.R. Smith missing the first two games due to suspension. James and Irving have had moments of brilliance that have been key to the Cavaliers’ series lead, but Cleveland wouldn’t have that series lead without key contributions from some of the less-heralded players on the roster.
Tristan Thompson is the first guy that comes to mind. One could argue that Thompson has been the Cavaliers’ second-best player in this series (maybe up until Irving went off in Game 5), and he has done it with limited offensive skill.
Thompson was expected to play a bigger role with Love sidelined, but the big man started the series coming off the bench as head coach David Blatt turned to Mike Miller in the starting lineup in an attempt to recreate some of the spacing that Love brought to the table. That turned out to be a disaster in Cleveland’s Game 1 loss, and Blatt has gone with Thompson in the starting lineup ever since.
Thompson is averaging a modest 8.6 points and 10.0 rebounds in 36.4 minutes per game in this series, but his impact goes well beyond those basic numbers. He has provided terrific defense and has been an absolute menace on the offensive glass, whether it’s grabbing an offensive rebound himself (3.6 offensive rebounds per game) or just keeping the ball alive for somebody else to grab the board.
That hustle was on full display in one of the biggest possessions of Game 5. With the Cavaliers up two in the final minute, James missed a fadeaway jumper that could have been the dagger. However, Thompson battled with Joakim Noah down low for the rebound, and Noah wasn’t able to secure the board, leading to a key offensive rebound by Iman Shumpert that helped seal the game.
The majority of Thompson’s impact on offense comes from his work on the glass, but he can be an opportunistic scorer around the basket. He doesn’t try to force things, and he’s a solid target as a pick-and-roll man when diving to the basket. The Cavaliers have hit on several lobs to Thompson that have resulted in thunderous slams:
As for Thompson’s defense, he played a key role in slowing down Pau Gasol after the Bulls big man torched the Cavaliers on pick-and-pop in Game 1. Thompson is a versatile defender who can switch on screens and also effectively protect the rim. The 24-year-old is allowing 42.2 percent shooting at the rim in the postseason, per SportVU.
Thompson’s frontcourt partner, Timofey Mozgov, has had a rough go of it offensively in this series, botching several dunks and putting together an awful 0-of-7 performance in Game 5. However, Mozgov has been a terror protecting the paint, and he’s allowing just 33.3 percent shooting at the rim in the postseason, per SportVU. In 88 minutes together this series, the Mozgov-Thompson duo has allowed just 89.6 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. The offense with those two hasn’t been very good, but when you’re playing that type of defense, it doesn’t matter as much.
In the backcourt, Smith has hit some huge shots, but I’d prefer to focus on Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova. Both players have stepped into larger roles this series, and they’ve made their impact felt on both ends of the floor.
Shumpert’s shooting has still been a bit erratic, with his percentages basically in line with what they were in the regular season. But he has been more aggressive looking for his offense, which has been a necessity considering the Cavaliers’ situation. He’s taking 11 shots per game and seven threes per game in this series, and he has also found some success knocking down shots off the dribble. Per SportVU, he’s hitting 57.1 percent of his pull-up jumpers in the series, a shot that was a key part of his arsenal in Game 5.
Defensively, Irving has had little hope against Derrick Rose, and that assignment has often been passed to Shumpert and also Dellavedova. Rose has had his success against both players, but they’ve made Rose’s life tougher than Irving has. Shumpert has been especially good defensively, as he has the third-best defensive rating on the team in this series (100.8) and the second-best net rating (9.3) behind only Thompson, per NBA.com.
In addition to his gritty defense, Dellavedova has done an admirable job running the offense and hitting open jumpers in relief of Irving. The Aussie is averaging 6.2 points and 4.2 assists in 21.2 minutes per game in this series, and he’s shooting 47.6 percent overall and 40.0 percent from three. This after he barely played in the first round against the Boston Celtics.
The success of these role players has been paramount with James’s erratic shooting and Irving’s uneven play in general. The Cavaliers will need these players to continue to perform in order to close out this series, and their importance won’t diminish if Cleveland advances to the Eastern Conference Finals.