Over the last 72 hours, a recurring theme has emerged during Boston Celtics post-game press conferences: Physicality. Against the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston failed to match their opponent’s physical brand of basketball; fast-forward 24 hours, and the Celtics went pound-for-pound with the New York Knicks.
“I thought we were really physical. That was one of our more physical games of the year, and coming off last night (against Philadelphia), is a good thing,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens explained post-game.
The primary difference between the loss against Philadelphia, and the win against New York, is the return of veteran big-man Tristan Thompson. Making his first appearance since the team’s 27-point victory over the Houston Rockets in mid-March, Thompson provided the Celtics with a toughness the team has been lacking in recent weeks.
Plays like the one above typify Thompson’s value to the Celtics: he fights for the offensive rebound, battles through contact, and feeds Jayson Tatum on the strong-side slot for an extra possession.
“More toughness, more energy, he brings that energy. He really controls the boards for us, and he does a really good job at it. He does a really good job of getting us extra possessions. Does a really good job of protecting us when we make mistakes on the defensive end,” said Marcus Smart during his post-game comments.
Thompson is currently pulling down 13.8% of Boston’s missed shots, eleventh-best leaguewide for offensive rebounding at 3.1 per game. On the defensive end, Thompson provided Boston with a rim-protecting presence, swatting away three shots and ending the game with a defensive field goal percentage (DFG%) of 25%.
“It was great to have him back, we missed him a lot. Just his presence out there, and how physical he is,” said Jayson Tatum.
Thompson’s performance against New York is arguably his best in a Boston uniform to date. Dominating on defense while impacting the offensive end of the floor with bone-crunching screens and relentless battles on the glass, we finally saw flashes of the big man who torched Boston so regularly during multiple Cleveland Cavaliers finals runs.
“I thought Tristan was really good, it was too hard to take him out,” Stevens explained when detailing the impact Thompson had on Boston’s success against New York.
Defensive plays such as this one display Thompson’s importance to the roster, especially since Daniel Theis’ departure. Switched on to RJ Barrett, Thompson does a fantastic job staying in front of his man, forcing him towards the baseline, and ultimately affecting the shot.
While Rob Williams will always provide a better rim presence due to his athleticism, Thompson’s ability to play towards the perimeter, while also possessing the ability to guard down multiple positions, provides Boston with unique defensive versatility from the center position.
Beyond that versatility is a toughness the team has been sorely lacking in Thompson’s absence. Sure, Marcus Smart’s grit is essential and often spellbinding, but once the perimeter is penetrated, there’s a lack of physical opposition roaming the defensive paint.
“He’s one of our more physical players, so when he’s out, it hurts. We will play with whoever’s available, but there is some reality to that,” Stevens explained.
On offense, Thompson looked like a player trying to get his legs under him, as he missed some of his hook shots and saw some tip-ins fail to fall. However, the big man’s presence around the glass ensured the Knicks kept a body on him, freeing up a Celtic once the Knicks committed two bodies onto Tatum down the stretch.
Thankfully, the Ontario native showed no side effects from his battle with COVID-19, as he logged 22 minutes of game time on his return and battled for every second of those minutes.
“I was in a twelve-round battle with that sucker. Thankfully, I won. I’m still here,” Thompson said in his post-game availability.
In Thompson’s absence, Robert Williams has been one of the season’s bright spots, impressing with his playmaking ability and rapid improvements on defense. With Thompson struggling to start the season as he overcame a slight injury, it remains to be seen if he will pry the starting spot back from Williams or flourish in a bench role similar to what he had against New York.
Something to keep an eye on is how well the pairing of Grant Williams and Thompson worked for Boston ends against the Knicks. Williams provided additional muscle on the defensive end, which allowed Thompson more space to operate and contest shots around the rim or on closeouts.
For now though, there are encouraging signs from a Celtics team that’s slowly inching towards full fitness. Having won three of their last four games, the Celtics are beginning to show a resolve that’s been missing for stretches of the season. Thompson might not be the cure-all for the Celtics issues, but his presence in the team provides a dimension that teams with dreams of contention must possess.