The gift the Celtics didn’t realize they were going to receive just in time forthis first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets was a fully engaged Tristan Thompson, who played the type of game Celtics fans were accustomed to seeing during his Cleveland days on Friday.
One of the reasons the Celtics signed Thompson to that two-year, $19 million deal in the offseason was his torment of Boston in crucial postseason games, using his offensive rebounding prowess to give the Cavaliers, with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, extra possessions in key moments.
Such was the case Friday, when Thompson turned back the clock for his best game as a Celtic with a whopping nine offensive rebounds, tying his career high for a playoff game. It was perfect timing, but the Celtics will need more of that with Robert Williams doubtful for Game 4 with a sprained ankle and turf toe.
The center position is an interesting one in this series because the Nets are trying to compete with undersized and aging Blake Griffin, and the Celtics are using screens to hunt mismatches with Griffin having to defend Jayson Tatum or Evan Fournier.
Brooklyn coach Steve Nash has not played former starting center DeAndre Jordan in the series, instead opting for Nicolas Claxton, who has looked overwhelmed by the moment at times. Former Celtic Jeff Green would also play center occasionally but he’s out for the rest of the series with a foot injury.
That leaves the opportunity for Thompson to give the Celtics the edge in the paint.
“The playoffs are a different story,” Thompson said, asked to explain his resurgence. “Some guys are built for the regular season. Some guys are built for the first half of the season and some guys live for the those moments in the playoffs. My whole career, what I do on the court is at a higher magnitude and more important on a winning team and obviously in the playoffs. Those energy plays change the momentum and gets the whole group going and it’s contagious.
“That’s what playoff basketball is about. That’s my calling card.”
The importance of Thompson rises exponentially with Williams being injured. One of the reasons why the Celtics competed in Game 1 — until the final minutes — was Williams’ nine blocked shots in 23 minutes. He put the Nets on alert and in Game 2 they used his aggression against him and he spent the evening in foul trouble.
Thompson is not the rim protector Williams is. But he is one of the elite offensive rebounders of this generation, grabbing nearly as many offensive rebounds Friday as the entire Nets team. It’s the little things that will help Boston continue to make this a competitive series — the Celtics desperately need a fully engaged, locked-in Thompson to have a chance to win Game 4.
For days Thompson said he has thirsted for a full TD Garden crowd, which he will experience as a Celtic for the first time Sunday. More than 17,000 fans will fill the arena, reinvigorated by the Celtics’ Game 3 win, knowing the longer their team makes this a series, the more pressure shifts to heavily-favored Brooklyn.
“It starts with myself and (Marcus) Smart, we’re the guys who like to get nasty,” Thompson said. “We’re the bulldogs, so we got to go ahead and do that because that separates us from others in this league. And we’ve been doing it a long time and that’s why teams appreciate us.”
The question is whether Boston can carry over that Game 3 momentum. Unlike their counterparts in Miami, the Celtics were able to respond to their return home with some inspired play and a victory. The Heat, who beat the Celtics twice so soundly two weeks ago, were the first playoff team eliminated Saturday, losing four straight to Milwaukee.
Thompson is the lone Celtic on the roster with a championship ring, and he’s been in Tatum’s ear about maintaining the level he established in Game 3, when he scored 50 points, including 29 in the second half.
“What I told JT is great players, they run it back two nights in a row,” Thompson said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to play with the great players. The greats know, when certain situations are on the line, it’s time for them to step up and perform and JT has that. He’s put the work in. It’s part of his destiny. How we can help him for him to be great on Sunday, we’re going to do that. Everyone has to step up.
“We need everyone to be 1 percent better on Sunday and to put ourselves in position to win the ballgame.”