BOSTON — The last time the Cleveland Cavaliers came to the TD Garden, they arrived without their starting center, as Tristan Thompson’s consecutive game streak came to an end.
Thompson was in the lineup Wednesday, dominating the glass, anchoring the defense and demoralizing the Celtics — and the crowd — with every hustle play.
“We are the worst (expletive) rebounding team in the league,” shouted a prideful fan sitting directly behind me in a green Kevin Garnett jersey. “I don’t even know how we win (expletive) games.”
Well, there’s merit to the profanity-laced query. The Celtics ranked 26th in rebounding during the regular season. They entered the night ranked 13th in the playoffs, by far the worst of the remaining teams.
After being pounded by Chicago’s Robin Lopez in Round One and again by Washington’s Marcin Gortat at times, this particular matchup against Thompson, Kevin Love and LeBron James had Celtics head coach Brad Stevens worried as soon as Boston claimed its spot in the conference finals.
“Love and Thompson are great offensive rebounders, first and foremost,” Stevens said. “The bottom line against Cleveland in my opinion is that when you get in transition and you’re scrambling all over the place or if you get scrambling all over the place in pick-and-rolls, you’re toast, because they just find the right shooters. So then you’re flying all over the place and you’re in terrible position to rebound.
“Then if they get it, then you have to fly back out to find those guys again because they’re looking to kick out for another three. It’s a really tough matchup. One of the reasons they’re great at rebounding, from Love and Thompson specifically, their effort to the glass is great. But they’re also working against a scrambling defense a lot.”
It took only a few minutes for Stevens to look prophetic. With Thompson at the center of the effort, the Cavs exploited Boston’s fatal rebounding flaw.
Thompson — punishing Al Horford like he has in so many postseasons past — pulled down four offensive rebounds in the first quarter alone, giving the Cavaliers’ already-explosive offense extra looks and wearing down the heavy-legged Celtics — after a grueling seven-game series against the Wizards — early. Less than five minutes into Game 1, Stevens subbed in 7-footer Kelly Olynyk, searching for someone, anyone, to keep the relentless Thompson off the glass. Sometimes there isn’t an answer.
In the 117-104 win, Thompson finished with nine rebounds, including six on the offensive end. He also drew numerous fouls against Boston’s bigs, forced to grab him to keep him off the boards.
The Cavs finished with a deceiving 44-40 rebounding advantage. They scored 52 points in the paint while getting to the foul line 35 times compared to 18.
When Thompson wasn’t cleaning the glass at his customary rate, he was providing an unexpected scoring lift.
With the Celtics so preoccupied with James, Kyrie Irving and Love, Thompson kept rolling to the basket for uncontested scores or converting put-backs. He finished with a postseason career-high 20 points on 7-of-7 from the field and 6-of-10 from the free throw line.
On defense, the versatile center was used to smother Thomas on the perimeter, as the Cavs used their ultra-effective defensive blitz strategy for much of the night.
“They can blitz you from any which way and they’re always finding the next threat well,” Stevens said. “It’s a compliment to their coaching. It’s a compliment to their plays, the desire to take away the threats. They’ve done a really good job.”
That’s been the Cavs’ postseason strategy. It didn’t change Wednesday. They will focus the bulk of attention on Thomas and force other Celtics to consistently make plays, believing the secondary options won’t be able to capitalize. There will be open shots and there were in Game 1 — many of them from beyond the arc where the Celtics have thrived.
“It all depends on who’s hitting those threes,” Lue said. “In the playoffs you’re going to give up something, and you want to take away something. There are going to be games like that, but as long as the people you gameplan for are not making those shots, then you’ve got to live with some of those.”
Other times, Thompson was the last line of defense, protecting the paint by altering numerous shots at the rim or forcing the Celtics to kick the ball out for jumpers.
The talent disparity between the two teams is obvious. It will likely be too much for Boston to overcome. But the Celtics are also vulnerable inside. They have been all year. Stevens tried his best. But he had no solutions.
Not having an answer for James is one thing. Same with Love, who scored 32 points. But Thompson? That’s a big problem.
“Tristan was big,” Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue said. “He’s our energy. He’s our motor. Defensively he was great. But all the offensive rebounds was huge for us. His toughness and his will are just big for us. I think his physicality is huge for us, especially against this team.”
In less than one quarter, Thompson — and Cleveland — exposed all of Boston’s weaknesses and showed why this is such a harrowing matchup.