Tristan Thompson once had a coach who told him that he should be aware of the teams he has the most success against, because in addition to finding ways to stop him, they would also become his admirers.
The Celtics and Cavaliers tussled in the playoffs three times from 2014-18. Cleveland won each series, mostly because it had LeBron James and the Celtics did not. But Thompson, the Cavaliers’ young, bruising big man, left an impression, too.
After trading center Enes Kanter to the Blazers this offseason, the Celtics bolstered their frontcourt by signing Thompson to a two-year, $19 million deal. He has spent his first nine NBA seasons with Cleveland.
Thompson had a feeling that the Celtics liked his style of play, and after this season ended, he was contacted by Boston stars Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker, who encouraged him to join their team, which had just come within two wins of the NBA Finals. The Cavaliers went 19-46 in 2019-20 and did not qualify for the playoff bubble in Orlando.
When free agency opened, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge called Thompson.
“He told me how much he loves my game,” Thompson said, “and how much I could be a great piece to this team and a missing piece to what they’re trying to accomplish.
“It felt like I was wanted. It felt like they really wanted me to be a part of what they’re trying to accomplish. It was a pretty easy decision.”
Thompson, 29, was especially intrigued by Boston’s young core of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart. He said all three left an impression on him during the 2017 Eastern Conference finals, when the Celtics were without injured stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving but took James and the Cavaliers to a Game 7 anyway. All three players have continued to blossom, of course, and Thompson continued to be an admirer from afar.
Thompson is a ferocious rebounder and a good defender, and he is eager to have an impact on the court. He also thinks he can offer wisdom to this young group, much as James did for Cleveland when Thompson was just finding his way.
“You guys saw me enough to see how I play and I’m going to play the exact same way,” Thompson said. “When I was a Cleveland Cavalier, playing against [the Celtics] in the regular season or postseason, I’m going to bring the same grittiness and toughness.”
Thompson saw Miami All-Star Bam Adebayo punish the Celtics in the conference finals this year, and he thinks his toughness will be a great asset against players like that.
He watched the Celtics closely during the playoffs and saw their draining seven-game series against the Raptors that was followed by the tough six-game loss to the Heat. Meanwhile, he has not played a game since last March, so thinks he can bring some fresh energy if the Celtics need some time to regain their legs after this brief layoff.
“I was on the court and in the weight room taking care of my body and getting prepared for this,” he said. “I think that, for me, I can bring a breath of fresh air, because these guys didn’t have an offseason. For me, having a long offseason, [I’m] bringing that extra juice to fire guys up.”
Smart, who recovered from COVID-19 last spring, said he is comfortable with the NBA’s plan for its return later this month. But he acknowledged there would be new challenges because unlike last summer’s restart, there will be no bubble this time.
“It’s a little bit tougher, because it’s not in a controlled setting where everybody’s in one spot and you can kind of dictate who is in and who is out,” Smart said. “Guys are going back to our homes and families and whoever else is in your household, but you’re exposed.
“It’s harder now. It’s really on the guys to really own up and take care of responsibility and be a professional and try to abide by as much as possible the rules and regulations of the CDC and everything that they have been doing to stay protected and keep yourself and others protected.”