It is in the subconscious of Tristan Thompson. A place where geometric calculations of space, timing and weight are taking place through a transfer of information in a vortex of an inner ear mechanism, brain stem communication, a cerebral cortex in a mesh with procedural memory which informs every inch, every half inch, every quarter inch.
TRISTAN THOMPSON, GATHERING ONE OF HIS 21 REBOUNDS IN WEDNESDAY'S VICTORY OVER THE NUGGETS. (David Liam Kyle, NBAE/Getty Images)
The sideline, the baseline, the key and the hashmarks of demarcation on and surrounding it. The glass backboard itself. The round cylinder. The length and the shape of the net.
Tristan Thompson will collect an amazing 21 rebounds in this one game against the Denver Nuggets, and the Cavaliers will overcome the Nuggets 98-88, largely accomplished by the strong inside game of Thompson and the front court. Thompson does this with more than just grit and physical tenacity.
There is a predictive calculation being made there. He is not just tracking the basketball, it’s angle of trajectory and speed with his eyes. He’s measuring where it will go.
He has always been capable of this.
At Texas, in the one season he played college basketball, Tristan Thompson averaged an astounding 3.8 OFFENSIVE rebounds per game. He came into the NBA with a 38.5 inch vertical leap and a standing reach of 9 feet and one half inch. By extension, at least in theory, Tristan Thompson can touch an object 12 feet 3 inches above himself by jumping.
An NBA rim is 10 feet above the ground. The inner square of the backboard is 18 inches high. The top of the backboard is 13 feet high. When he came into the NBA, Thompson could touch an area within 9 inches of the top of the backboard from a standing leap.
On Wednesday night, every inch of Thompson's leaping ability and agility is expended until he finds himself, through clutching, stabbing or slapping the basketball, in control of the ball. The only thing that kept Tristan Thompson from getting more rebounds were that some of the shots taken on the floor went in the basket and could not be rebounded.
His 21 rebounds were the most ever by a Cavalier against the Nuggets. They were the most of any player in a Nuggets/Cavaliers competition, passing up Fat Lever who had snatched 20 rebounds while holding Brad Daugherty to only 3 in a March 3, 1988 win before a crowd of just of 9,000 in Denver. They were just 4 rebounds away from Rick Roberson’s 1972 team record 25 rebounds, which has stood almost since the birth of the Cavalier franchise.
At times it looks like he could close his eyes after the shot goes up and know, somehow, whether it will miss and where it will careen. It’s chemistry, physics and effort. And he gets them all.
JJ Hickson, the former Cavalier, then King, then Trailblazer has finally found a home with the Nuggets. He’s no longer a freakish superior athlete with unlimited potential. He’s returned with generally acknowledged limitations on his ability to focus and his ability to improve his physical game. There are no plays run for him, but he’s found a role for himself as curious NBA player, one who relies on that athleticism only to grab rebounds himself, to score off missed shots rather than run plays or have plays run for him. He starts at center, where he is able to position himself to maximize what he is able to do.
He’s been matched up with Andrew Bynum, who is at least 3 inches taller, 40 pounds heavier, much larger, much stronger and much more aggressive. Bynum’s assertiveness on the Cavaliers is unlike anything the franchise has seen since coach Paul Silas and Zydrunas Illgauskas were teamed up. It is a ferocity that Hickson cannot match with his somehow still raw athleticism. Bynum’s strength and weight pushing on each man in the paint that tests him has impacted these last two games as much as any numbers will calculate. He demands more than just mental attention, he demands physical energy, some bruises, perhaps blood.
Bynum calls Hickson “an infant”.
BYNUM CALLED HICKSON "AN INFANT" (David Liam Kyle NBAE/Getty Images)
Hickson’s theory of rebounding in this struggle is simplistic:
“Its all about heart,” Hickson has said of rebounding. “It’s all about passion and desire. It’s not really technique, because you never really know where the ball is going to bounce. It’s about who wants it more. When guys realize that you want to get every rebound, they don’t even try to get the rebound. Even the guys on the same team. When they realize that you are going to rebound at a high rate, they … get out of your way.”
Hickson is wrong, of course. The ball doesn’t bounce randomly. Dennis Rodman would stay up hours at night, studying film of the location of his teammates misses. Same with Moses Malone, who would study his teammates shots so he could tell where they would miss, and as importantly, HOW they would miss.
Hickson’s success cleaning up around the rim to this point in his life is a measure of how far raw athleticism can go with the passion and desire to go after the ball based on not paying attention to what’s happening, at a maximum, until placed in a position to get the basketball after it’s bounced. Which is kind of astounding. Hickson’s numbers portray a good night, 15 points, 11 rebounds.
Hickson’s numbers are wrong also. This is the Nuggets when they’re being dominated in the frontcourt, where the Cavaliers are bigger, stronger, and where Tristan Thompson is operating.
Tristan Thompson has a double double at the half, with 11 points and 13 rebounds, 7 offensive. He is finding the ball because his hands are tuned to find the ball. There is a cocktail mixture of passion, yes, and also physiology, of thought and perception, of measurement and measurement and measurement. It is a war zone there in the paint. With giant bodies moving on fast twitch muscles, desperate to prevent Thompson and the Cavaliers from doing what he is doing. Kenneth Faried, Hickson, Wilson Chandler, the giant Mozgov. Nothing is stopping Thompson. Nothing is outperforming him.
At the end of this game, with Anderson Varejao whirling around him also in a commanding performance. Varejao’s mid range jump shot, developed over years, has become automatic, but is so new that it remains under-defended. He makes these shots, he flies around the paint like a younger man.
The Cavaliers front line has dominated this game. The crowd and the room is a Wednesday night chaos with some completely warranted trepidation that this will not be closed out appropriately. But Irving’s offensive game is developing and operating with efficiency. The Cavaliers defense has held Denver’s all star point guard Ty Lawson to 1-13 shooting on the night. And this front line, Thompson, Varejao and the massive Bynum.
The Nuggets came into this game on a 7 game winning streak. Some of the victims along the way included Chicago, Dallas (twice), Minnesota, all leading up to a full blow destruction of the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday night before traveling to Cleveland. The Nuggets came into this game with an All Star level point guard in Ty Lawson, who was scoring at a rate of 20.2 points per game and assisting 8.1. On paper, this looked like it would be a bloodbath that this crowd of 14,000 would be walking out so slowly and with heads held so low.
But electricity has struck here by the river and made life. It has crawled from the water and up into this gym, it has progressed in day after day. They have won this game. They can win other games. They can win tonight, in Atlanta or anywhere.