“Better start, be more active and a little bit faster around the court and to change things up a little bit at that moment,” Cavs coach David Blatt explained as his motivation for the switch after practice Sunday.
Since the change Thompson has averaged 8.0 points and 9.7 rebounds as a starter, but more important, Cleveland has held its opponents in Phoenix, Denver and Orlando to an average of just 87.7 points on 41.8 percent shooting.
The Cavs’ success has mirrored the run it went on when Thompson replaced an injured Kevin Love in the starting lineup last postseason, only then he was starting alongside Mozgov. Thompson receiving the lion’s share of the playing time at center -- he’s averaging 32 minutes the last three games compared to 14.7 minutes for Mozgov -- makes the Cavs more versatile on defense because of his ability to switch out in pick-and-roll situations and continue to smother the opposition on the perimeter.
Yet, Blatt emphasized that Thompson might not be the permanent starter moving forward. “It’s something that’s not etched in stone,” Blatt said. “We may either situationally or philosophically go back. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see that happen, but that was the move that we wanted to make at the time and it’s proved to be pretty good for everyone involved so far.”
It’s worked for Thompson. But it’s also been an adjustment. Thompson, whose career-high 9.9 rebounds per game average led all bench players in the league this season, had become accustomed to being a high-level substitute, scouting the opponent while he sat in his warm-ups and watched the game unfold.
“I think coming off the bench, it kind of gives you a little cheat sheet,” Thompson said. “It gives you time to watch the game. See how the game is being reffed. See how guys are playing. If a guy is hot, coming off the bench you know that right away. You see what moves he’s going to in the game.
“But when you start, you got to set the tone. Especially for us bigs, that’s our job. That’s what we got to bring to the table for this team -- setting good screens, playing physical and getting us off to a good start.”
One aspect of the game where Mozgov clearly still has a leg up on Thompson, even in a reduced role, is free throws. Mozgov is shooting 82.2 percent from the line this season -- a career high for the six-year veteran. Thompson is shooting just 50 percent -- a career low in his five seasons.
His free throws have been even worse in the last three games since assuming his role as a starter, going 4-for-17 (23.5 percent) and he was also targeted by the Suns in a “Hack-a-whomever” scheme.
“I’ve been getting in a lot of extra work in,” Thompson said, adding he has been “terrible” at the line. “I think it’s just coming down to getting up underneath the ball and getting the mechanics [right]. If you miss two, don’t let the mental part of the game get you out of it. And that’s what’s happened a little bit.
“But these guys say get back to the basics, fundamentals and knock them down. Because teams are going to do that. There’s a couple teams in the league that do try that. So, if they try that tomorrow or whoever we play next at the end of the week or the month, I got to be ready to knock them down and don’t be a liability.”
Indeed, the Cavs play the San Antonio Spurs on their upcoming six-game road trip and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is infamous for his use of the tactic.
“He’s always working and good that he’s doing that because obviously it’s important for him to build confidence,” Blatt said of Thompson. “He’s not a bad foul shooter. He’s had a period, stretch here where he hasn’t shot them well, but he’s not a bad foul shooter.”
Thompson switched from shooting free throws with his dominant left hand to his right hand two seasons ago, but insists he won’t blame his recent struggles on the change -- nor consider switching back.
“I wouldn’t say it’s affecting me,” Thompson said. “At the end of the day, I’ve done something that no one’s done and I’ve basically started at a late age. But I’m not going to use that as an excuse. I get enough reps and the gym is open 24 hours a day, so I’m not going to use me switching hands as an excuse. I’ve knocked plenty of free throws down in big situations in the course of my career. So I just got to go up and knock them down.”
And what if a team the Cavs are facing goes back to Hack-a-Tristan in the future?
“It’s part of the game,” Thompson said. “I don’t make the rules. It’s part of the game. It is what it is. I like to view it as free points, right? So if you make the shot you get some free buckets. So I’ll take it.”