Few title contenders were made with a star player sidelined by injury.
Thirty-five years ago, the Los Angeles Lakers bucked the trend when they upended the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1980 NBA Finals, despite league MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar missing the decisive Game 6. But that was just one game without their captain, and they did it thanks to the stellar play of another superstar—rookie Magic Johnson, who stepped in at center and led the team to victory.
Nine years later the two-time defending champion Lakers, who were already without starting guard Byron Scott, were in the Finals again playing the Detroit Pistons. This time it was Magic, though, who went down in Game 2.
Without a viable replacement, Detroit went on to sweep the Lakers.
This year, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost star forward Kevin Love for the duration of the postseason when he went down in the opening round against the Pistons. Most observers thought (including myself), at the very least, the adjustment in playing without Love would be too much and Cleveland would be summarily dismissed before the Finals.
Two rounds later, Cleveland is rolling sans Love—and the play of Tristan Thompson is a major reason why.
Thompson, who was a starter the previous two seasons, has been added to the starting lineup in Love’s absence and the team hasn’t lost a beat. Why? For one thing, most of the Cleveland players already know him well as he was a starter the past two seasons.
The 6-foot-9 hard-working center is one of the better offensive rebounders in the league—ranking fifth each of the last two seasons—sets great screens, and is humble enough not to need any plays run for him.
His game-saving block Sunday, late in the fourth quarter, helped Cleveland extend the game to overtime. Then late in overtime, Thompson grabbed an offensive rebound and immediately threw the ball to a wide-open LeBron James who subsequently nailed the decisive three-pointer with 36 seconds left to extend Cleveland’s series lead to 3–0.
His play hasn’t gone unnoticed by teammates either.
None other than four-time MVP LeBron James has been publicly lobbying management to sign the 24-year-old impending free agent to a long-term deal—something he doesn’t seem to be doing for Love, who’ll also be free agent this summer.