When the playoffs began Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson had distinct roles. The two reserves were expected to come off the bench and provide energy on a second unit that had ranked dead last in points per game, while maintaining the output provided by the team’s star power in LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.
Ten games later, both found themselves sitting at the postgame podium on either side of the game’s best player after providing unlikely primary performances in Cleveland’s Game 6, series clinching victory over the Bulls.
“They want to be good. They want to be great,” James said after the game. “And every single day they prepare the right way, and they just go out and they play with instincts. They’ve played basketball their whole lives, and for them to go out there and put it out on the floor, good things happen for guys who are true to the game.”
In two rounds of the playoffs the Cavaliers have been met with unforeseen injury circumstances to Love and Irving, twice trailed in their series against Chicago and had to deal with the realistic question of whether or not a team built on that star power could sustain their high expectations with a group of role players touting little to no postseason experience.
Thursday night they got their answer.
It was a turbulent series for Dellavedova, who heard boos rain down from the United Center after getting tangled up with Taj Gibson in their Game 5 victory. But when Irving aggravated a left knee injury and exited the game for good early in the second quarter, the Cavaliers didn’t miss a beat on either side of the ball when Dellavedova took over.
The second year guard hounded Derrick Rose (14 points on 16 FGA) defensively and found his outside shooting touch in the second half, scoring 16 points on 6-for-10 shooting after halftime, with each basket extinguishing any chance of a Bulls comeback any time the hosts showed any signs of life.
Dellavedova went 15-for-27 in the series, handily outplaying his bench counterpart Aaron Brooks throughout and providing necessary defense on Rose while the Cavs attempted to hide Irving’s limited mobility on the defensive end.
“He’s an incredible competitor,” Irving said. “I’m so happy for him.”
Head coach David Blatt’s attempt to use James at power forward backfired in Game 1, prompting him to insert Thompson at the power forward spot to allow James to play on the perimeter. And though it left the Cavs paper-thin on the second unit, Thompson’s play in the series was invaluable. On Thursday night he scored 10 points in the opening stanza, helping Cleveland withstand a 31-point quarter from the Bulls. He continued his assault on the glass, grabbing 12 rebounds after halftime as the Cavs clamped down a Bulls team that scored 42 points after the opening quarter.
He increased his scoring total all six games of the series, and averaged a double-double after entering the starting lineup in Game 2 (10.4 points, 11.8 rebounds).
“Just being part of the playoffs and having the opportunity to play with (James) over here, it definitely is special,” Thompson said. “What a ride. I’m glad I could be a part of it and help this team win.”
[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]
It doesn't appear Irving will be playing at full-strength anytime soon, while Thompson has cemented himself in a starting role. And while James' production will always be a direct correlation of how the Cavaliers are playing - he added nine rebounds and 11 assists - Cleveland's role players suddenly have taken on a far greater role than they expected when the playoffs began.
Contributions from J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert hold value to the Cavs, but on Thursday night it was Thompson and Dellavedova who delivered the knockout blow to a championship-aspiring Bulls team and moved the Cavaliers one step closer to their ultimate goal.
"This guy here," James said pointing to Thompson, "he’s not the most athletic guy right here, he’s not the tallest power forward in our league, he’s not the strongest power forward in our league. But not too many guys can keep him guys off the glass.
"This guy here," James continued, turning to Dellavedova, "is not the most athletic, fastest, doesn’t shoot it as great as all the other point guards in our league. But I’ll put him out there against anybody.
"When your mind is true, I think the game gives back to you."