BOSTON — Getting outscored 60-38 in the paint in Game 1 should have been enough to convince Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue to make a change.
Al Horford making 7-of-8 from the field when guarded by Kevin Love should have been enough to show Lue that what worked in the Eastern Conference semifinal sweep of the Toronto Raptors isn’t the right plan for the Boston Celtics.
But in his final answer Monday, Lue dropped an analytical nugget that revealed he’s likely to start center Tristan Thompson in tonight’s Game 2 against the Celtics.
“Looking at the statistics, over the last three years with at least 30 possessions (defending him), out of all the guys that have guarded Al Horford, Tristan is No. 1 in the league,” Lue said during practice at TD Garden. “So, that’s good, you know?”
Thompson has made just one 2018 postseason start — Game 7 of the first round against the Indiana Pacers — and he responded with 15 points and 10 rebounds in 35 minutes. Seeing action in nine of 12 playoff games, Thompson is averaging 5.2 points and 5.1 rebounds, with 24 of his 46 boards coming on the offensive end.
In Sunday’s 108-83 loss to the Celtics at TD Garden, Thompson scored eight points, making four of six shots, with 11 rebounds (four offensive) in 21 minutes.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens called Thompson “a tough player to guard,” and “a great fit for that team.” Stevens said Thompson’s play in the Raptors series was “tremendous,” which points more to his efficiency than his averages (5.3, 4.8). Thompson made eight of 13 shots, five of five free throws and pulled down 19 rebounds (13 offensive).
When the possibility of a lineup change was posed, Lue said, “It’s definitely something we have to weigh. We weighed it before the series started, but we’d won seven out of eight and we weren’t going to adjust until someone beat us and we didn’t play well with that lineup that got us to this point.”
Thompson is clearly ready. When asked if he takes getting outscored 60-38 in the paint personally, he started to answer before the question was finished.
“That’s unacceptable,” he said. “Obviously, us bigs, we should be (ticked) off about that. Our job is to protect the paint, so we’ve got to do a better job with that. We’ve just got to communicate. In the pick and rolls, they were able to get downhill a lot, so we’ve got to clean that up.”
Despite injuries and his diminished role this season with Love starting at center, Thompson, 27, still has postseason averages of 7.8 points and 8.8 rebounds. He’s ready to take on Horford, 31, a five-time All-Star with the Atlanta Hawks and Celtics.
“Horford’s a very good player,” Thompson said. “If you can’t get up to play All-Star bigs, then I have nothing to tell you. Whenever you go against him, we’ve had a history, especially in Atlanta with him and Paul Millsap, with Chicago, Joakim (Noah) and Pau (Gasol), those are All-Star bigs that are very good players. For me, a guy that wants to keep getting better and keep proving myself, you get up for those games.”
Thompson’s strategy against Horford doesn’t sound complicated.
“Just be myself, be very active, be active early. Horford’s playing very well right now and he’s shooting the crap out of the ball,” Thompson said of Horford, who’s shooting .593 from the field, including .379 on threes. “When I do check in the game, whether it’s him or (Aron) Baynes, I just try to run the floor, set pick and rolls. Just try to work (Horford) on both ends so hopefully by the second half his legs might be a little tired where he might not make that three that he makes in the first half.”
Love said Monday he thought the Cavs “were a little soft” in the first half defensively, letting the Celtics get open looks and a good feel for the game early.
Lue didn’t agree.
“I think missing shots offensively kind of carried over to our defense,” Lue said. “I don’t think we were soft defensively. I just think they took advantage of mismatches and we weren’t able to get there. They were basically doing the same thing we’re doing, but they executed better than we did.”
No matter what their coach believes, Thompson will try to help boost the Cavs’ intensity, no matter if he’s starting.
“I think as a team, 1 through 5, we’ve got to all play tougher,” Thompson said. “Obviously when I check in the game I’ll try to break that toughness and that energy.
“Our starters have got to be ready to throw the first punch. If we’re able to do that, we’ll be able set a tone early. If they do that from opening tip, it makes it easy for the second unit to come in and keep that energy going.”
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