INDEPENDENCE — Tristan Thompson echoed Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue’s media day message and managed to make it sound like a challenge.
“At the end of the day like T-Lue said, we’re still four-time Eastern Conference champions. Until you take us down from that, teams ain’t got much to say,” Thompson said. “Boston, Philly, they ain’t got much to say. Boston had home court in Game 7 and lost. Philly, they almost got swept. Toronto, we already know that story. Until someone takes us down, there’s not much they can really say. Not to me.
“Even though LeBron’s gone, we still have a very talented ballclub. We still see ourselves as a playoff team.”
The 27-year-old Cavs center was playing off Lue’s comment from Monday. When asked who is the East favorite after LeBron James departed for the Los Angeles Lakers, Lue responded, “We haven’t lost yet, have we?”
The Cavs reached their fourth consecutive NBA Finals by defeating the Celtics by eight points in Game 7 in TD Garden. The Cavs swept the Raptors in the East semifinals. The Celtics eliminated the 76ers in the five games in the semifinals.
The Raptors traded DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard. The Celtics are getting injured Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving back. The young 76ers are maturing. The Victor Oladipo-led Indiana Pacers took James and the Cavs to seven games in the first round.
But Thompson won’t accept the suggestion that the Cavs are closer to a lottery team than a playoff team.
“Of course LeBron was a huge part, the franchise cornerstone of our team. We’ve had a lot of success together, built a lot of memories, won a championship here, which we give him a ton of the credit,” Thompson said Thursday after practice at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “Myself, J.R. [Smith], [Kevin Love], he’s prepped us for this moment so when it’s time for guys to part ways we were prepared and we were mentally ready for that challenge.
“I think [James] did a good job teaching us the qualities of what it takes to be a pro, what it takes to be a champion, and now we’ve got to pass that along to the young guys and keep that culture going.”
Thompson said his goal is for the Cavs to be among the league’s top 10 defensive teams in the regular season. The Cavs achieved that ranking only once in the past four seasons with James, finishing 10th in 2014-15. The other three years they ranked 29th (2017-18), tied for 22nd (16-17) and 20th (14-15).
In the playoffs the Cavs switch a lot on defense, which is why Thompson said their defensive numbers improved. In the past four seasons (starting with 2017-18), the Cavs ranked 10th, eighth, ninth and fourth in defensive efficiency in the playoffs.
“In the regular season we’re pretty garbage because we don’t show our hand until the playoffs,” Thompson said. “This year I think we want to change that. I think guys want to be a team that’s top 10 in team defense.”
As one who takes pride in defense, Thompson wasn’t happy with the regular-season effort, but understands it.
“I think with our team the last four years we knew what the goal was and that’s playoff time,” Thompson said. “When we knew the last regular season game was April 17, we turned the switch on and we changed it.
“I used the word garbage, maybe not that locked in, which kind of messes our defense up in the regular season. We don’t play our style of defense because we don’t want to show our hand, which leads to the poor numbers.”
While he borrowed from Lue’s comment about the Eastern Conference, Thompson’s goal of being a top-10 defense did not come from his coach.
“That’s his own personal goal,” Lue said. “I would like to see that as well. I think we have the versatility to do that. We’ve had it in the past. We’ve just got to keep harping on defense first. Getting up the floor, the athleticism we have, switching versatility, we definitely have to score with our defense.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.
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