CLEVELAND — New Cavaliers coach John Beilein didn’t demand that Tristan Thompson run his grueling conditioning test in early October.
Beilein said he didn’t press because big men don’t usually pass it the first time, not that early in training camp.
“Usually you make the first, you just miss the second and the third you can’t do it,” Beilein said Wednesday. “I didn’t make him do it, but said it would be good for the team to show what you got.”
The test consists of three 30-second suicides, with only 30 seconds in between. Beilein thought that would be too much for Thompson, 28, listed at 6-foot-9 and 254 pounds. But Thompson assumed a leadership role last season before injury hit and thought it was a good idea.
“He asked me to do it, gotta do it,” Thompson said. “Set an example for the other guys. It was a long practice, so I didn’t think I was going to do it, but I did it.”
Beilein said the center in his ninth season needed no second chance.
“He ran right through it,” Beilein said.
“I think he is in incredible shape right now and he has a great attitude about being a team leader,” Beilein said. “When you care so deeply about your team, you’ll find some extras a lot of times to really grow yourself in that. The more you give to others, the more you are going to get.”
Through four games for the Cavs, 2-2 heading into Friday night’s game at Indiana, Thompson has led the team in scoring three times. He’s averaging a career-high 20.3 points and 11.8 rebounds.
His field goal percentage of 59.4 is well above the 52 percent he’s posted in his career. His highest points average in his previous eight seasons is 11.7 (2012-13, 2013-14); he’s reached double-digit rebounds only once (10.2 in 2018-19).
Thompson totaled a career-high five blocked shots in Wednesday’s 117-111 home victory over the Chicago Bulls and his nine blocks in four games is on pace to crush his career-high of 123 in 2012-13, his second season.
Thompson was performing at an All-Star level before a lingering foot issue limited him to 43 games in 2018-19. He played in 53 the previous season, when he dealt with a calf issue.
“Tristan looks great,” Cavs five-time All-Star forward Kevin Love said Wednesday. “We’ve both been pushing each other a lot. But that’s all him. He’s very focused, he’s taking care of his body. He did a lot of work in the offseason to prepare himself.
“This is definitely the best I’ve seen him. When I got here the first couple years, he was really impressive, then he hurt his calf, which lingered for a while. That fourth quarter really showed how bouncy he is and how relentless he’s been on both ends of the floor.”
Asked about slimming down, Thompson joked, “I live in LA, I’ve got to look good on the beach.”
But his conditioning is no joke. Some wonder if he’s auditioning for an NBA playoff contender, but his performance and leadership could change the minds of a Cavs front office that will explore trades for five players with expiring contracts, including Thompson.
Thompson said after four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, the fact that last season ended in April gave him more time to work out.
“Get some time to relax, but also get more time to get yourself in the best shape you could possibly be,” he said. “Obviously missing all those games last year definitely pissed me off. I never experienced that in my entire career. I accepted a challenge to really take care of my body and kind of changed some of the habits I was doing in the past and so far, knock on wood, it’s paying off.”
Beilein is especially impressed with Thompson’s blocked shots as Beilein and associate head coach J.B. Bickerstaff try to improve a team that finished 2018-19 last in three major defensive categories — efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions, 115.1), rating (116.7) and field-goal percentage allowed (.495).
“I’ve got goals and coach Beilein put the bug in my ear, so I’m accepting the challenge,” said Thompson, who recently told Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com he wants to make the NBA’s first team all-defense. “Our paint protection was bad last year. Especially with not having John Henson, someone’s got to protect that rim.”
The Cavs are without two centers as Henson suffered a right hamstring strain on Saturday that could sideline him a month and Ante Zizic is bothered by plantar fasciitis in his left foot.
“When I looked at the analytics from last year, the big gaping hole was rim protection,” Beilein said. “And [Thompson] had a tendency coming in to stay more with his own man when somebody was beat. We said, ‘You’re the last line of defense. We’ll try and cover up on your man, but you have to lead and wall up, take charges.’
“He didn’t take a charge all last year, he’s already taken two this year. Just be this guy that can protect us at the rim. You don’t have to be the best shot blocker to make a difference at the rim, and he’s doing that.”
Thompson started to prove to Beilein what he’s capable of with the conditioning test and has no plan to let up.
“I’ve always had good conditioning. That’s been my strength, even though I hate running,” Thompson said. “I destroyed it and it’s on to the next challenge.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about the Cavs at www.beaconjournal.com/cavs. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.