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Tristan Thompson takes next step as Cleveland Cavaliers’ unquestioned leader following blowout loss

WASHINGTON — Sometimes being a leader means receiving a bulk of the credit when things go well. That’s what happened Tuesday night. Thompson was showered with praise by teammates and coaches following a fourth consecutive double-double, a game in which he guided the Cleveland Cavaliers to a much-needed win against the Charlotte Hornets.

Other times being a leader means shouldering the blame.

That’s part of Thompson’s responsibility now. In a season defined by internal growth, he took a big step following Cleveland’s latest double-digit defeat.

“I’m going to take a lot of ownership on that,” Thompson told of the 119-95 loss before leaving the arena. “In terms of tonight, getting in foul trouble early, it takes away the toughness and energy, that’s what I bring to the team as a veteran leader. I’m going to take responsibility for that.

“Getting in early foul trouble messed up rotations, but those things I bring were taken away from our starting unit so I have to be smarter with those fouls and don’t put us in those holes. I’m going to put a lot of it on me messing up the whole flow of the game.”

It’s tough to single out one player in a 24-point loss that stopped being competitive midway through the first quarter. Plenty of guys could’ve done more.

Jordan Clarkson, who has become the team’s leading scorer in Kevin Love’s absence, tallied just nine points on 4-of-13 from the field. It was the first game this season that Clarkson failed to reach double figures in scoring. He also committed a team-high six turnovers on a night when taking care of the basketball was priority No. 1.

Rodney Hood, who teammates always encourage to be aggressive, played timid. Attacked repeatedly by Otto Porter Jr. at one end of the floor, Hood made little impact on offense to make up for it.

JR Smith was a non-factor, scoring six points on 3-of-11 from the field. Cedi Osman looked rusty after missing the previous two games with lower back spasms.

But nobody played a bigger role in the blowout loss than Thompson. It’s not what he did when he was on the floor. It’s what he couldn’t do because of foul trouble.

With the Cavs playing the second game of a back-to-back, after arriving in D.C. around 1 a.m., they needed his infectious energy. As JR Smith told one night earlier, no one plays a bigger role in Cleveland’s success than Thompson. The Cavs go as he does.

Sure, they have numerous deficiencies. But playing with energy isn’t usually a problem. Neither is putting up a fight against a superior foe. Thompson is the tone-setter.

Plastered to the bench because of two silly fouls in three minutes — one contesting a fading Markieff Morris jumper that had little chance of going down — there was no one to wake the Cavs from their slumber. Head coach Larry Drew tried, calling two early timeouts.

There was no one to set those menacing screens to free up teammates for quality shots. No one to be the defensive linchpin, the one to provide some resistance as the Wizards were repeatedly shredding the Cavaliers’ leaky defense and scoring with relative ease. No one to settle the team, help weather the storm, while the Wizards were making their early run.

They missed Thompson’s voice. They missed his toughness. Missed his rebounding. Missed his non-stop motor. His rolls to the rim.

By the time Thompson checked back into the game at the 7:26 mark of the second quarter, it was essentially over. The Cavs were trailing by 23 points.

“It hurt us a little bit,” Drew said. “Never like to lose a starter that early in the game. Just an unfortunate situation and thought we would be able to play out of it. But it did affect us.”

Drew said he goes into every game with a backup plan. Prior to Wednesday’s matchup, Drew and his staff discussed options in case of Thompson’s foul trouble. Playing against burly Dwight Howard, needing to be physical to deal with him inside the paint, the Cavs believed it was likely for Thompson to rack up fouls.

The Cavs did the same thing with Collin Sexton, as the rookie had a tough matchup with John Wall. Just in case Sexton was overwhelmed and picked up some early fouls trying to keep the speedy Wall out of the paint, the Cavs wanted to be prepared.

In the case of Thompson, the backup plan was David Nwaba, who popped off the bench and shifted Larry Nance Jr. to center. 

Nwaba played well. But he can’t replace Thompson. He’s not the same kind of player. In a 24-point rout, the Cavs were only outscored by five points with Thompson on the floor. That number helps highlight his impact. 

The Cavs lost Wednesday’s game early, while Thompson was helplessly watching from the bench. As the team leader, that can’t happen.

“This was a big test for us no doubt. This arena against this team, I knew it would be a big test for us,” Drew said. “But we didn’t withstand it. Early in the game, I thought the first five minutes dictated the rest of the game. We just seemed we were in quicksand.”

Thompson is usually the one to do something about that. Tough to do from the sidelines. 

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