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Tristan Thompson is beating the Warriors at their own screening game

The Cavaliers' big man is expertly toeing the line between legal and illegal screens to free his star teammates. That tactic should sound familiar to the Warriors.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

There are lots of adjectives to describe the Cleveland Cavaliers’ unlikely comeback in these NBA Finals. Dazzling, for LeBron James’ performance. Befuddling, for the Golden State Warriors’ lack of poise. Dizzying, for the way Kyrie Irving has put the Warrior guards on skates.

But in a way, it’s also been ironic.

Ironic largely because of the impact of Tristan Thompson. From a thousand feet, it’s obvious that Thompson’s energy, hustle and physicality is unwinding the Warriors. On offense, he’s doing all the dirty work against an opponent that specializes in it. On defense, he’s plugging holes all over the court. All this despite barely getting a rest during the competitive portions of these games.

Yet a deeper look reveals that Thompson is at the center of a clever Cavaliers adjustment. You’ll recall all the angst about the Warriors getting away with illegal screens earlier in the playoffs. At the time, we downplayed the noise for two reasons:

  • Illegal screens are hard to legislate because the rule is Byzantine.
  • We only notice the Warriors toeing the line because they are one of the greatest shooting teams of all time. In other words: the rule-bending actually pays off. We forget about the other teams’ so-called illegal screens because they often lead to missed 19-footers.

How ironic, then, that the Cavaliers, led by Tristan Thompson, have unwound the Warriors’ defense with some sneaky screening tactics. Take a look at this pick, for example:

The upshot is one of the prettiest pocket bounce passes you’ll ever see, but consider how it was set up. The Cavaliers ran a James/Thompson high pick and roll early in the shot clock. Throughout the series, Andre Iguodala has slid under these types of screens, daring James to shoot. In Games 1-4, Iguodala was able to get under the screen and prevent James from attacking downhill. He met James’ drives, which prevented the Cavaliers from gaining any numbers advantage on the play. That forced James to go one-on-one, which hasn’t been his strength in this series.

But on this play, watch how Thompson took advantage of Iguodala’s tactics. Rather than stand still, Thompson backed up into Iguodala, reverse-pivoted to essentially box him out and held his arm for good measure.

And Thompson wasn’t the only one. The Cavaliers constantly used similar tactics with Stephen Curry’s man in an attempt to force a switch. Richard Jefferson and Thompson made damn sure Iguodala couldn’t switch back to James.

The Cavs employed that change in Game 5, too. Wonder how James got good looks on these plays? It’s because Thompson did everything he could, legal or not, to prevent Iguodala from ducking under his screen.

This adjustment isn’t entirely new, as teams deal with defenders going under ball screens on non-shooters all the time. One way to account for that is to have the screener back the defender up as the ball-handler zig-zags downhill. These constant screens and re-screens function as a rapid game of chicken. Eventually, the defender either ducks himself underneath the basket or is forced to fight over a screen. The Cavaliers know this well: this is one way the Toronto Raptors tried to make them pay for going under DeMar DeRozan screens in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The difference is that Thompson is really good at all sorts of screening angles. He spreads his arms wide and isn’t afraid to use his elbows to create even more room. He can hold his position conventionally and he can sneak in those arm grabs to fortify it further without the referees noticing. He also knows that he’s much more valuable holding his screens than rolling to the basket, unlike most big men.

Toss in an ability to slide to the ball-handler’s other side to catch the defense leaning, and Thompson has the full screening package. He has the physicality and finesse to spring James, Irving and whoever else needs a pick.

And after trying to force and pound mismatches through four games, the Cavaliers realized that Thompson’s screens — along with targeting Curry — are the golden tickets to unleashing James.

One would have thought that James would post up more given his inconsistent jumper, but he’s actually moved further away from the basket to get Thompson more involved. Using Thompson as his lead blocker gives James more space to attack downhill, whereas straight post-ups force him to rely on a quick-twitch first step that’s not quite as quick as it was a few years ago. By stepping back and using Thompson to slam Iguodala by any means necessary when he tries to duck under, James can actually build up speed and step into jumpers and drives.

Let’s be clear: all’s fair in love and basketball. The legality of these Thompson screens is beside the point, because a screen is as legal as the referees are calling it. We can’t turn the other way on borderline Warriors calls for the sake of a game’s natural flow and then ask for a strict screening interpretation when another team adopts similar tactics. The Cavaliers are smart for making this adjustment, not cheap.

That leaves the Warriors with an uncomfortable, yet obvious answer: fight harder. If Thompson and other Cavaliers are making it harder for the Warriors to slide under ball screens, the Warriors shouldn’t be afraid to shove back to get through them. Though James made this jumper, this is the kind of fight Iguodala and other Warriors must show in Game 7.

Yet asking Iguodala to do that consistently is a tall order given his current back pain. If Thompson continues to make Iguodala pay physically for going under ball screens, the same switching strategy that makes the Warriors’ defense unique becomes untenable. It’s hard to switch properly when your head is buried in Tristan Thompson’s chest.

And if not Iguodala, who? Harrison Barnes is a shell of himself, Klay Thompson is needed for Irving, Draymond Green is needed to protect the basket and Brandon Rush has been out of the rotation for weeks.

That could force the Warriors to return to more traditional pick-and-roll coverages, but those are the ones James normally eats for breakfast. By switching successfully in Games 1 and 2, the Warriors cut James off from his teammates and forced him to be a scorer exclusively. Going back on that strategy as a response to Cleveland’s screening adjustment unleashes James’ otherworldly playmaking even further. It allows James to create a brief 2-on-1 advantage, and nobody in the world is better at exploiting that.

That leaves the Warriors with just one choice: fight force with force. Whoever guards James has to get under these screens, even if they’re being held. The Warriors can’t let Thompson dominate them physically with his screening, even if it means bending the rules even further.

Otherwise, they could run the risk of blowing a 3-1 Finals lead in part because their opponent was better at toeing the line on illegal screens. How’s that for a plot twist?