06/16/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/15/2016 05:59 EDT

Brampton's Tristan Thompson having a breakout NBA Finals

If one of Tristan Thompson's opponents were watching him at the start of practice — laughing and joking with the Cleveland Cavaliers staff while his teammates begin shoot-around — they might look on him as a typical nice Canadian. 

They'd be half-right.

The 24-year-old Thompson plays basketball like a hockey player, the kind of guy who would dive head-first into a slapshot if it was going to help his team. Just ask Golden State centre Andrew Bogut, one of the many taller opponents Thompson has out-rebounded so far in the NBA Finals.

"Tristan's tough," says Bogut, forcing out the compliment through gritted teeth. "He's very active on the offensive glass. He's gotten a lot better. He's aggressive."

Or, more succinctly, in the words of Cavaliers coach David Blatt, this nice Canadian is "a game monster."

Thompson's strength and impossibly long arms have made him the leading rebounder in the NBA Finals, which Golden State is leading three games to two. One might imagine him as a Greek-style composite: half-bull, half-squid. 

When a reporter informs Thompson that the stats show that whichever team won the rebounding war actually lost the game, he shrugs.

"That's an interesting stat," Thompson tells me after practice recently. "But I'm gonna keep hitting the glass cause that's my strength."

'Hammer and rope'

You might think a soccer-playing kid from Brampton would never have imagined himself in the starting lineup of a team in the NBA Finals. Except that's not actually true. 

"When that was going to happen, I wasn't too sure," Thompson says. But it was something he thought about from a very young age.

Growing up, his on-court inspiration was an American playing in Canada.

"Vince Carter definitely made the dream more visible and attainable just for him playing in Toronto and being on the Raptors," Thompson says.

After he was drafted fourth overall by the Cavaliers, he hoped to one day make it to the playoffs, then, eventually, the finals. What surprised him most is that both happened at the same time.

"Shoot," he says smiling, "that was always a goal of mine but I guess it all came at once … making it to the playoffs and making it to the finals.  It's been definitely been out of this world."

His four-year NBA career has seen him go from a role-player on a terrible squad to key player on a title contender alongside superstar LeBron James. 

What's more, Thompson helped get them there, stepping into the starting lineup for injured all-star Kevin Love.

"Once he was injured, it was unfortunate, but at the same time I was working on my game all year where if the opportunity did arise I would be ready to play," Thompson says.

"Play" might be the wrong word. In his coach's toolbox, Thompson is a both a hammer and a rope. His game is simple: Stop the other guy. Get the ball back.

"It's been a grind," Thompson says. "It's been a boxing match, everyone's been throwing punches. You thought you had a team down, they come back, they punch you back. But this is what the playoffs are about. No one said it was going to be easy."

All-star calibre series

In this series, no Cavalier has logged more minutes than Thompson other than LeBron James. But all those minutes are a problem he's happy to have.

"There's a week and change left in basketball, you got to give it all you got," Thompson says. "You have the whole rest of the summer to relax."

This summer, Canada's national team is hoping to persuade Thompson not to relax. Thompson is the linchpin of a so-called Golden Generation of young Canadian players who, it is hoped, will be playing at the Pan Am games this summer in Toronto. Because of an improvement in homegrown coaching, Thompson says, 7 out of 10 Canadians playing in the NBA were drafted in the first round.

"Back in the day, guys were not getting the opportunity nor was the coaching up to par like it was in the States," he says. "Now a lot of coaches from Canada are going to the States, going to clinics, learning what it takes to mould and develop players the right way to become top-level Division One athletes."

These days, Thompson is hoping to help the Team Canada men's basketball team get to the Olympics for the first time since Steve Nash led them to the Sydney Games in 2000.

"We've got a young group, I think the best thing for us is to gain experience, and I don't see why not in the coming years we cannot be in the Olympics and compete for a medal," Thompson says.

But they'll have to qualify first. The team's on the bubble, and needs to prepare with a strong showing this summer at Pan Am Games. 

But this summer Thompson will be a free agent. Earlier this year he turned down a lucrative contract. It was a risky move, but his solid playoff performance means his bet on himself may well pay off. 

He'll likely have to sort out his next contract before he takes the court for Canada. So at this point, he is a maybe to play for Team Canada at the Pan Am Games.

"I haven't made a decision yet," Thompson says. "When the season's over, I'll talk to my family and my agent and we'll figure out what's the best thing for me this summer."

Right now, he says, he's trying not to think past Tuesday and the must-win game six. Stop the other guy. Get the ball back.