CLEVELAND — It’s hard to believe that at one point during the Cavaliers’ playoff run Tristan Thompson wasn’t even in the rotation.
Now it seems like Cleveland can’t win without him.
After not playing in three of the first six games against Indiana in the opening round, Thompson was in the starting lineup for a Game 7 victory. He saw regular playing time in a four-game sweep of Toronto in the semifinals and has been a factor in the Eastern Conference finals, especially in the two games in Cleveland — both wins.
In the starting lineup for the third straight game Monday night, Thompson scored 13 points, grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds and blocked two shots as the Cavs evened the series at two games apiece with a 111-102 victory at Quicken Loans Arena.
It came on the heels of Thompson’s 10-point, seven-rebound effort and plus-36 performance in a Game 3 win.
“He’s been great,” coach Ty Lue said of Thompson, who saw more minutes (38:24) than any Cleveland player outside of LeBron James. “You have somebody like Tristan who’s been to three straight finals and he doesn’t play. It’s tough. He could have given in, but he stayed the course, continued to work on his body, work on his game. We called his number in Game 7 (against the Pacers) and he was ready to go, and the rest is history. He was great in the Toronto series.
“Tonight, just being physical, rebounding the basketball and doing a good job on Al (Horford). We need him to continue to do that.”
The Cavaliers’ resident Al Horford stopper brought his energy and tenacity early, thwarting Horford on Boston’s first field goal attempt, then grabbing two consecutive offensive rebounds on his own misses before finally scoring for Cleveland’s first points.
Thompson owned the highest plus/minus (plus-17) on the floor in the opening quarter and he was effective in the second period as well, finishing the first half with 10 points, eight rebounds and two assists.
He scored inside with just under four minutes remaining after the Celtics cut the deficit to 10, then threw down a dunk off an assist from James to put Cleveland in front by 17 with 24.6 seconds left in the half.
“(Kendrick Perkins) always says the job of a big man, he’s got to bring the toughness, bring the energy,” Thompson said. “We’re the back line of defense. The guys rely on us to communicate and call the coverages out and have everybody’s back.”
Thompson wasn’t as productive in the second half, but he still had his moments.
He came up with a big block on Terry Rozier that led to a transition basket by James that put the Cavs in front 78-66 with 5:33 left in the third quarter.
Thompson’s dunk on an assist from Kevin Love gave Cleveland a 102-93 lead with just over four minutes remaining in the game.
One thing that has been constant for Thompson is his defensive effort against Horford, a five-time All-Star.
With Thompson on him as the primary defender the past two games, Horford has scored 22 points — only seven in Game 3 — after hitting for 35 in Boston’s two wins at home.
“Things start on the defensive end for us,” Thompson said. “Like I said after Game 2, we just weren’t communicating. I think we did a much better job at home, but the real test is how we’re going to play out there in Boston.
“They’re going to have their crowd behind them and they’ll be feeling good. We’ve got to be ready to weather their storm. It starts defensively for us.”
James is happy to have his old friend back in the battle.
“We made some trades and brought in a lot of guys (midseason), but at the end of the day we know that the experience we got with the guys that were already here, you can kind of hang your hat on,” James said. “To have that type of comfort with guys that you know that have been in the bunker — you know you can always rely on them.”
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