CLEVELAND - Two of the biggest plays of Tristan Thompson's young NBA career won't show up in any box score.
But in the closing minute of the Cavaliers' 106-101 Game 5 victory over the Bulls, it was Thompson who provided the intangibles and additional effort that helped Cleveland seal the win.
With the Bulls trailing by two with 49 seconds remaining, Jimmy Butler got free of an inbounds play and hoisted a 3-pointer from the right corner. The shot came up well short and caromed straight down off the rim, with an unclean miss oftentimes leading to an offensive rebound. As Butler hoisted the shot, however, Thompson found Bulls center Joakim Noah and put a body on Chicago's lone big man. Butler's miss bounced off Thompson's foot and into the waiting hands of LeBron James, giving Cleveland possession.
That next trip down, James allowed time to run off under 30 seconds before backing down Butler and putting up a fadeaway 15-footer. James' shot was off, but Thompson - as he had done all night - anticipated Noah's box out, swam around him and got a hand on the ball, tipping it back out into the waiting hands of Iman Shumpert. Shumpert then found Kyrie Irving, who was intentionally fouled and sank two free throws to push the lead to four with 17 seconds remaining.
Two sequences. Zero rebounds. Both potentially game-saving plays from Thompson, who added 12 points and 10 rebounds in 39 minutes.
"He's been in many, many, many closing situations and he's given us yeoman's work every time he's in there," head coach David Blatt said. "Sometimes you notice it more, sometimes you notice it less. But he's in the fray all the time."
In a series featuring an All-Star starter in Pau Gasol - who missed Games 3 and 4 with a hamstring strain - the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Joakim Noah, a pair of skilled sixth men in Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic, and a 7-foot rim protector in Timofey Mozgov, it's been Thompson who has looked like the most complete frontcourt player.
In five games, the 24-year-old - going through the rigors of his first playoff series - has averaged 8.6 points on 61 percent shooting, 10.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 36 minutes per game. Thompson's net rating of +9.7 leads the Cavaliers and he's now recorded double-doubles in two of his last three games.
He trails only Joakim Noah in offensive rebounds per game among players still in the playoffs, and Tuesday night his four offensive boards led to six of the Cavs' 14 second-chance points - which doesn't include his effort on the Shumpert rebound, which resulted in two Irving freebies.
"(Thompson) worked his ass off to get three guys to go over there and box him out," Shumpert said. "Once the ball came to me I had the easy job on the play, if you really look at it."
When Kevin Love suffered a separated shoulder in Game 4 against the Boston Celtics, much of the talk centered on how James and Irving would be forced to step up their games. But that applied to Thompson as well, who averaged 25 minutes off the bench in the first round. Now he's logging more than 36 minutes per game against the Bulls, playing down the stretch in the Cavs' small-ball lineups and acting as the team's muscle, stepping in after the skirmish between Taj Gibson and Matthew Dellavedova and speaking candidly about it in the locker room after the game.
"We’re not going to let guys come around here and hit us or kick us. We don’t tolerate that, especially me," he said. "No matter home, away, practice facility, wherever we’re playing, we don’t tolerate that."
With the Bulls' frontcourt ailing - and a potential, albeit unlikely, suspension looming for Gibson - the Cavaliers suddenly seem to have the frontcourt edge in the series. Cleveland has now out-rebounded Chicago in three of the last four games - all resulting in wins - with Thompson leading the charge. His numbers have spoken volumes about his impact on the series, but as James alluded to Tuesday night, Thompson's value begins and ends with the effort he exudes, seen no more clearly than in Game 5's final minute.
"Tristan's been unbelievable. Through five games, I give him an A+ in effort. It's all effort with 'Double-T.' Can't coach a motor," James said. "You put him on the floor, he's going to make things happen. He has a knack for rebounding."