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Texas Ex Tristan Thompson emerges as ultimate role player, NBA champion

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Willing to do all the dirty work, Thompson is the “heart of soul” of the Cavaliers.

NBA: Finals-Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

There are now four former Texas Longhorns basketball players to win an NBA championship, with Tristan Thompson of the Cleveland Cavaliers joining the list on Sunday evening after a remarkable run in the Finals.

Thompson averaged a double-double against the Warriors with 10.3 points and 10.1 rebounds in just over 32 minutes per contest, and added six blocks for good measure. On the offensive end, he was extremely efficient in converting 63.6 percent (28-44) from the floor. Two performances in particular stand out — 15 points and 16 rebounds in Game 6 and 14 points and 13 rebounds in Game 3.

In Game 6, Thompson hit all six of his field-goal attempts, made 3-of-4 free throws, and added three assists. Three of his baskets came on lob dunks as Thompson focused on getting to the right spots on the court to make himself available to LeBron James.

“When he's attacking and getting to the rim or in a pick-and-roll, just find ways to get him open, setting a good screen or if they attract a double team, just get to the open area,” Thompson said. “Get to the open area, and if he throws it, go up and finish strong, go up and finish strong because he's attracting the bigs, so you're going to have a small on you, so go up and finish strong and put it on the rim.”

But to truly understand the contributions of a player who has emerged as one of the top role players in the Association, it’s worth looking more deeply into those numbers to figure out why Thompson is such an indispensable piece for the James and the Cavaliers.

ESPN crunched some of those numbers and the results through the first six games were startling — no other player in the series had a better plus-minus than Thompson (+38), who helped hold the Warriors to 41.7 percent shooting when he was on the court.

Successfully defending the Warriors requires versatile big men with the footspeed and willingness to switch perimeter screens to deal with deadly shooters like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Even Draymond Green is extremely difficult to defend because he can take opponents away from the basket and out of their comfort zone.

But Thompson was incredible in working against Curry and Thompson, arguably the two best shooters on the planet. When the Texas Ex was on the court during the first six games, Curry averaged half as many points per 36 minutes as he did when Thompson was on the bench and didn’t hit a single shot that Thompson contested (0-for-11). He also committed four turnovers on those possessions. Klay Thompson turned the ball over three times when guarded by the Cleveland standout, hitting 4-of-12 attempts. In all, Thompson forced 14 turnovers as the primary defender through the first six games.

James and the rest of the Cleveland defense deserve tremendous credit for continuing to build on the success Oklahoma City had defensively against Golden State, but it’s clear from looking at the numbers that Thompson was a driving catalyst in the defensive efforts that helped upset the defending champions.

After the decisive game, Thompson explained why he so willingly embraces a role that is far from glamorous and mostly attracts attention from wonky sabermetricians.

“‘Be a star in your role,’” Thompson said. “I like to look at a championship team as a puzzle. Everyone has their role. Some have the role to score; me, I have the role of doing the ‘dirty work.’ Just be a star in your role.”

Favorably compared to Dennis Rodman by James early in the playoffs, it’s clear that Thompson is an absolute star in his role, earning praise from his head coach as the “heart and soul” of the team. And now he’s also an NBA champion as a result.