INDEPENDENCE — Tristan Thompson was the Cavaliers’ starting center when he got hurt Nov. 1. He will come off the bench tonight at Quicken Loans Arena when he makes his expected return against the Atlanta Hawks.
“He pretty much knows what’s going on,” coach Tyronn Lue said of the change.
Thompson worked out Monday and if he feels OK this morning, he will return after missing 19 games with an injury he said was “much worse” than the strained left calf the Cavs called it. He didn’t provide specifics, but was happy to be on the verge of returning.
“It’s the first time ever in my career that I’ve missed a lot of time,” Thompson said. “It’s more work when you’re injured than when you’re healthy. I don’t like getting hurt. I’d rather play.”
He will, but how much remains to be seen.
With Kevin Love starting at center, Thompson came off the bench the first three games of the season, then moved into the starting lineup for five games — Love went to power forward — prior to getting hurt.
A lot has changed since the 6-foot-10 Thompson last saw action. Cleveland was 3-5 when he went down and went 16-3 without him, upping its record to 19-8 heading into tonight’s game against the 6-20 Hawks.
With Love playing well at center — he sat out Saturday against Philadelphia due to hip soreness but will be back in the lineup against Atlanta — and the jelling Cavs having won 14 of their last 15 games, Thompson again will be used off the bench.
The seventh-year pro’s minutes could be limited there, too, as big man Channing Frye played well in Thompson’s absence and will continue to see time with Kyle Korver on the floor-spacing second unit.
“Tristan is a big part of what we do,” Lue said. “However we’ve got to figure out how we’ve got to use him, we’ve got to do that. I have a plan in place. We’ll see how it works.
“We’ve been playing good basketball right now,” the coach added. “We have a good flow and a good rhythm. Tristan understands that, so we’re just going to keep (the starting lineup) the same way for right now.”
An extremely limited player offensively, Thompson is averaging 4.4 points and 6.4 rebounds while shooting .577 from the field and .455 at the foul line.
The 26-year-old wasn’t playing particularly well at the time of his injury, but his defensive versatility and offensive rebounding have been invaluable in the postseason the last three years, so Lue knows the big man remains an important piece.
“Rebounding the basketball, his energy, defensively being able to guard four or five positions on the floor, we missed that,” Lue said. “He’s big for what we do.”
Thompson, who said there was no way he was going to make it back in the three-to-four-week time period the Cavs listed for his injury, is fully aware the team played great basketball without him, so he’s willing to be patient.
“Our team is growing,” he said. “Wherever T-Lue wants to put me, I’m a team-first guy. I’m about winning. I’m about winning games. No one remembers second place.”
Thompson went on to say he was happy for Frye, whose 3-point shooting has helped the Cavs’ second unit prosper. He also realizes getting enough time for him and Frye will be difficult, though Lue plans on giving it a try.
“We’ve got to figure it out,” Thompson said. “I don’t care. If I don’t play, I’m fine. As long as we’re winning, I’ll cheer my teammates on.”
In other injury news, Isaiah Thomas, who has not played this season due to a hip injury, took part in another competitive 3-on-3 game Monday. It appears the 5-9 point guard might return prior to the Cavs’ original target date of January, but the organization has no new timetable.
“The biggest thing is to make sure he’s 100 percent,” Lue said. “We’re not trying to rush him back.”
When pressed, a laughing Lue added, “I don’t know when he’s coming back. I wish I did so you would quit asking me. I really don’t know. I’m not hiding it from you. I really, truly do not know.”