When Tyronn Lue decided Saturday morning he was going to replace fill-in starting point guard Jose Calderon in the starting lineup fro the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, he needed someone to step up big.
Consider that step taken.
After playing a total of only 23 minutes in the first six games of the first-round series, Lue dusted off Tristan Thompson, who started the last three NBA Finals for the Cavaliers.
Thompson made Lue look like a genius, posting 15 points, 10 rebounds, an assist and a blocked shot in 35 energy-packed minutes to help Cleveland advance and to eliminate never-quitting Indiana, 105-101.
He made Lue look like a genius, simply by displaying the form that had been his trademark until this season. In addition to the double-double, Thompson moved his feet on defense, cutting off Pacers guards Victor Oladipo and Darren Collison in pick-and-roll situations, set monster screens and rolled hard to the bucket and made Indiana work for every defensive rebound. Thompson had five offensive rebounds in the victory.
The heroes were aplenty, for a change, for the Cavaliers, with five guys scoring in double figures, their most in the series.
LeBron James was his usual spectacular self, with 45 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and four steal in 43 minutes. Kevin Love finally "stepped up," as James had asked, with 14 points, including two huge fourth-quarter 3-pointers, and six boards. J.R. Smith had 11 points and played hard defensively against Pacers All-Star Oladipo and George Hill contributed 11 points, six rebounds (5 offensive), three assists and a block in 19 second-half minutes off the bench.
However, it was Thompson who was the difference from the jump.
"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."
Thompson said Lue did not inform him he was starting Game 7 until Saturday morning.
"He just came up to me and said, 'I'm going to start you tomorrow,'" Thompson said of being informed. "I said, 'Say no more.'
"At the end of the day, we're all professionals. Me and T-Lue, we've been through years together. When my number is called, I've got to be there for my guys, especially what's on the line, win or go home. When he told me I'm starting, just locked in and said, 'It's time to come up and step up.'"
In making his first start since March 28, Thomson shot 5-of-6 from the field and matched that from the free-throw line in posting his first double-double sing Feb. 9.
"That's the Tristan that we know," James said. "Giving us extra possessions, catching the ball on the rolls and finishing. Just his energy, his effort. That's how he's made his name in this league, by just being high motor and being able to outwork who's ever across from him."
Love said having Thompson start alongside him and James in the Cleveland frontcourt made things easier for him.
"You see what T.T. brings to the table especially playing at the 5 and everyone going to their natural positions," Love said. "He should get a lot of the praise. He stayed ready, he was a pro, he didn't get many minutes this series but he came in and gave us a big double-double, blocked some shots, gave us great energy, you gotta tip your hat to Tristan. He was great tonight."
Lue, who had started Jeff Green at the four and Love at five in Game 1, was happy for his big man.
"I'm just happy for T-Top," he said. "He's been here with us for so long and been through all of the things we've through over the course of the last four years and to step in and play the way he did, I'm just so happy for him."
Thompson downplayed him being ready to answer the bell after scoring just five points and grabbing six rebounds in the first six games combined.
"It's part of being a professional," Thompson said. "It's a long playoff journey. I remember our first year (2015) all together, K-Love goes down against Boston and I get thrown into the starting lineup and I have to play big against Chicago with Pau (Gasol) and Joakim (Noah).
"So playoffs are a long journey. If I'm not on the court, I have to be there to cheer my teammates on and from the sideline be there mentally and keep guys locked in and focused."
Lue choosing to go with the only four holdovers from the Cavaliers' team that won the NBA championship in 2016 -- James, Love, Smith and Thompson -- paid huge dividends. The foursome combined to score 85 of Cleveland's 105 points in Game 7.
"Nothing like a Game 7," Thompson said. "I was telling the young guys, 'This is what the playoffs are about. And a Game 7 separates the men from the boys. You've got to give everything you've got.'
"After Game 6, I looked at Bron, Swish and K-Love and said, 'We've been through this before. We've been in Game 7, we know what it takes.'"