Through the first six games of the Cavs' opening-round series against the Pacers, Tristan Thompson had logged 23 total minutes, including three games in which he never saw the floor. In a deciding Game 7 on Sunday afternoon, he jumped into the starting lineup and played 35 minutes.
The Cavs needed every single one of them.
With the season on the line, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue turned to Thompson, the seven-year veteran who has been through the playoff wars with this team and served as a major contributor during the 2016 championship run. He rewarded Lue's trust and demonstrated his value, scoring 15 points and grabbing 10 rebounds (five offensive) in Cleveland's 105-101 win over Indiana.
Thompson didn't do anything outside of his skill set - that wasn't what Lue needed. Thompson simply checked all of his typical boxes. He made the Pacers work for every rebound, displayed quick feet on switches and sucked in the defense on runs to the rim, leading to easy shots at the basket or open 3-point opportunities.
.@RealTristan13 is eating with 8PTS and 7REBS in Game 7! #WhateverItTakes pic.twitter.com/a2J9hcbWC3- Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) April 29, 2018
LeBron James' eye-popping line of 45 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and four steals will stand out, as is often the case in big games. But James didn't have to do it all by himself this time.
Kevin Love had 14 points, including a couple clutch 3-pointers in the fourth quarter. George Hill added 11 points off the bench in the second half. And Thompson was prepared when Lue called his number - even after it appeared that moment might never come.
"I just want to say Tristan Thompson, all series long, we just told him to be ready," Lue said. "Come into Game 7, to start and perform the way he did was huge. Having 15 points and 10 rebounds - he hasn't played all series, really - and to step up and be in the fire of Game 7 was unbelievable."
"For (@RealTristan13) to step up and be in the fire of Game 7 was unbelievable."- Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) April 29, 2018
Coach Lue credits a "total team win" in today's must-win Game 7 at home.#WhateverItTakes pic.twitter.com/GYVV9Xcf1i
Had Thompson joined the starters and failed in a pivotal moment, questions about Lue's coaching process (or lack thereof) would have followed the Cavs into the offseason. Now those questions might come in a different form - why wait so long to play Thompson? Did the coaching staff trust him, or was this a desperation move with the Cavs on the brink of elimination? (And why was Hill brought off the bench so deep into Game 7? There were certainly some curious decisions throughout the series.)
Regardless of how the Cavs got here, it's clear Thompson has earned a more significant role moving forward. With the variety of threats the Raptors will bring to the table in the Eastern Conference semifinals, James needs all the help he can get.
Thompson won't average 30 points per game like James. He isn't capable of hitting a bunch of 3-pointers like Love. He won't carry the Cavs to victory.
He can be a difference maker when it matters most, though. Game 7 proved that much.