After eons of misery, the future for the city of Cleveland is . . . well, let’s just say, it’s not as bleak as it usually is. If ever there was a source of inspiration, this year’s version of the Cleveland Cavaliers certainly qualifies. Following Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the Cavs are 1-1 and heading home, having turned the home court advantage to their favor.
It’s a greater accomplishment than it sounds. First of all, the franchise hired a coach who only true insiders knew had the necessary skills to succeed at the highest level of basketball, mostly because he’d had incredible success at the next to the highest level of basketball. The confidence the front office had in their decision to hire somebody named David Blatt, who wasn’t a former NBA player, assistant coach, front office employee, commentator (heck, a guy who didn’t even have experience in the video room) might have waned a tad when hometown favorite (turned despicable villain), LeBron James, decided to U-turn his career and become a Cavalier again. All was forgotten. LeBron was even more beloved than before. But what that new coach’s name again – and what was his plan for gaining LeBron’s trust? People would understand if “European” became “you’re a-peein’ ” in Blatt’s case.
Thoughts of “How will the rookie coach, who few fans ever even heard of, interact with the Savior?” must have entered the minds of the brass (as well as every other fan – Cavs or other). LeBron wasn’t consulted and didn’t sign off on the new head man because the coach was brought on board before the superstar was. Deep down, the front office personnel had complete confidence the transition would be fluid. After all, they’d acquired (more due to LBJ’s involvement than their new coach’s), All-Star “stretch four” Kevin Love, meaning that, with their own point guard phenom, Kyrie Irving, the Cavs now had the recipe for a championship, i.e. their version of The Big Three.There were so many positive vibes in Cleveland that, when franchise and fan favorite, Anderson Varrejo, went down for the year, there was no cause for panic.
Sure enough, the season was smooth sailing. . . until the squad lost three of their first four games (the only win coming in overtime). Then there was the 12-game stretch from Xmas until mid-January during which the club lost 10 contests, leaving them with a record of 19-20. The information super highway being what it is (“unforgivable” is a word that comes to mind), anonymous people (as well as some not so anonymous), felt compelled to weigh in on the coaching part of the equation. With the record as it was, Blatt could have been bracing himself for the unemployment line. Instead, he and the assistant coaches did what every solid coaching staff does – they kept their heads down, trying to figure out how to right the ship.
The front office came to their rescue, obtaining J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from the Knicks – although there was some concern about bringing in guys who were accused of displaying a halfhearted effort for New York. The key move, one GM David Griffin had in the works for quite a while, was bringing in Timofey Mozgov from the Denver Nuggets. Mozgov is Russian and had played for Blatt in Europe which had to comforting for the coach during a season of constant criticism.
Fast forward through the season (Cleveland finished second in the East behind Atlanta) and through the playoffs (in which they lost the services of Love to injury against the Celtics – until, maybe, next year) to the NBA Finals. It would be a monumental task to ask such a club to win it all in LeBron’s (and Blatt’s) first season. James had even asked for patience as they went about creating the proper culture (of winning) and learning a new system. Yet, there they stood, albeit as major underdogs to a Golden State team who was setting all kinds of records, representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. Somehow, they kept the first game close – and had a shot (which turned into a couple of attempts) to steal Game 1 from the Warriors.
The ultimate lesson regarding “how teams respond to adversity” occurred. Neither shot went down, the game went into OT and, not only did they lose the game, but the injury-stricken Irving – who had battled back from one problem after another – was lost for the remainder of the playoffs when he knee struck that of Klay Thompson’s who’d been guarding him.
A look at the stat sheet showed that in the second half of Game 1 the Cavs had only three players score – and, for Game 2 (and here on out), one of them wouldn’t be available.
When asked about how LeBron James willed the team to win, David Blatt’s comments were (close but not verbatim), “You’d be hard pressed to find a player who can give an all around performance and all around leadership like he does. That’s what winners do and that’s what he is – a winner.”
As far as LeBron’s remarks on trying to win the championship without either Love or Irving, “I don’t need any extra motivation. Our guys love it. They’re using it as motivation. I have some other motivations I won’t talk about . . . ” Whoa! Did LeBron let the media (and public) in on a little of his personal goals. What might they be? I’d rather not speculate, but do hope to live long enough to discover exactly what it is that’s burning deep in the belly of that beast.
It would be shocking if David Blatt didn’t also have some unspoken goals. Whether, as several insecure coaches I’ve known, he has a list of people who’ve “jumped off his bandwagon” (or who refused to ever get on it) is unknown. Revenge, however, would be, no doubt as sweet for him as it would be for LBJ. To the media, following Game 2, Blatt was frank as he assessed their chances:
“We’re without two All-Stars. I don’t know of another team who could do what we’re doing. What truly matters is what we have as a game plan and that we go out and execute it.”