Cavs Steal Victory But No One Can Enjoy It, Certainly Not Coach Blatt

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Sometimes you wonder if the reason Cleveland can’t have nice things isn’t because Kelly Olynyk will break them, but because after years of misery we’re low on appreciation. The Cavaliers just gutted out a tough physical road win against the Chicago Bulls and don’t have to win another game at the United Center this year if they just hold serve at home.

They just beat a coach whose job is on the line if he can’t at least make the Conference Finals (which are looking more and more like a turnstile to the NBA Finals if you don’t believe in Wizardry), and a hungry team that feels about LeBron the way he felt about the Celtics prior to leaving for Miami.

Like both games in Chicago, it was a classic NBA playoff slugfest, a battle of gritty defense and breakout runs, one team stopping the other while briefly putting together a patch of offense. Buckets were hard to come by, and both games came down to an exceptionally difficult shot at the buzzer that was the result of the shooter scrapping the play and doing their own thing.

In both cases the winning coach called a play not for the team’s superstar but the guy who had been the most accurate shooting starter during that game. In one case the star abandoned the inbounds play, ran to the ball, and wound up with a contested miracle shot. On the other, the star mentioned his preference in the huddle to the coach and together they changed the play, affording him an open jumper.

Indeed, the game prior, the star had complimented the coach for drawing up the play that allowed them to tie the game. Nobody complained on Friday that with the game on the line the ball went to J.R. Smith and not LeBron James. Because it worked.


But while Sunday’s play worked, the fact that James had “scrapped,” as he tells it, Blatt’s initial play caught real attention. Note that not one beat reporter mentioned that James had drawn up the sweet little dribble hand-off play that resulted in Smith’s big Friday night shot.

The fact that LeBron was the inbounder initially for this play has drawn a lot of attention – an outsized bit – so much so that we feel compelled to write a column just about the last play before we even begin to talk about the game because that media narrative has gotten so big it’s overshadowed everything else.

How can anyone even hear about the rest of the game before you’ve defused this lumpen brown Monday morning movement?

Let’s set up a few things first. In defending Coach David Blatt’s final play call we are in no way suggesting that he was blameless. His near-Webber is just the Byner-esque brainfart that indelibly weaves itself into Cleveland sports lore in a matter of seconds. That Blatt even tempted fate like that is worthy of scorn.

Blatt admitted afterwards that he nearly “blew it,” just as LeBron said after the game that he’d made “mistake after mistake after mistake, but the Man Above granted me one.” If you replaced Man Above with Tyronn Lue, you’d have pretty much the same thing.

When Blatt initially drew up the play – during a brief non-timeout during which the referees watch replays to determine the proper amount of time on the clock rather than relying on the slow trigger finger of the hometown clock operator, thank you very much Jeff Van HateCavs – there were only 0.8 seconds on the clock. When play resumed there would be 1.5 ticks on it.

At the time LeBron had made 3 of 17 shots outside of the paint. At that moment J.R. Smith had hit all 4 of his fourth quarter shots every single one of them heavily contested. He had 11 points in the quarter and along with surprise fourth quarter starter Timofey Mozgov’s (yes, instead of Tristan – but who’s parsing) eight points, helped lead the comeback.

We can’t speak for you but there’s hardly anyone we trust more than J.R. Smith when he’s cooking. He could be standing in a trailer park in West Virginia and behind the maypole, we wouldn’t bet against him. Not after he hit this.



James had six in the quarter (2-7, 2 FTs) but had hurt his ankle earlier in the half. The team had been unable to inbound the ball on one occasion and had called a timeout rather than take a foul the other time. The failure to call an even rudimentary baseline stack set of some sort is indeed baffling and among the several mistakes Blatt made during the game.

It would appear they expected a foul but didn’t even make any movement, and then the play to LeBron in the corner — what was he doing there? Every basketball player’s first education is not to stand right there in the corner where you’re trapped by the back court line and the baseline. He could have taken the ball to the middle of the court on the dribble or advanced it in someway rather than wait for the trap that resulted in an offensive foul. That was a mistake I’m sure he’d acknowledge.

In light of their trouble with the inbounds pass/inability to call a proper play, it maybe made sense to put LeBron on the trigger. He’s easily the team’s best passer and he’s tall, so he’s well equipped to handle Noah leaping around like a wild animal in front of him trying to block his passing angles.

However, LeBron turned to Blatt and said essentially, “Listen, I’m going to make this shot. Let me take it." He was saying subtextually, "Listen guys, I know that I have made 8 turnovers, I have shot 9-29 to this point, but if you give me one more chance I’m going to get this game for us.”

We already noted that Rose did essentially the same thing the other day, only on the court without Coach’s approval. On Mike and Mike this morning, Jeff Van Gundy said he’d drawn up last minute plays and had Ewing ask to take the shot. In Bulls lore there are numerous cases where Jordan deferred and someone else took the shot. (More on Michael in a moment.)

Of course, that doesn’t fit the media narrative that this is LeBron’s world and Blatt’s just a squirrel trying to get a nut. We’ve discussed before the idea that some think there is only one way to manage. Indeed, the way that many media types seem to suggest – especially those on television – are come across as excessively authoritarian, ego-laden, and, well, grampa-like.

Maybe that worked back in the days of peach baskets two decades ago when the NBA was only a $2 billion business fresh off a painful lockout. These days the total take’s $5 billion, and the players make a lot more with requisite increases in power and autonomy.

Put simply, if LeBron wants to stand at the left wing break dribbling and feinting with the ball for 15 second before initiating a move, calling off any attempts by his big men to set a pick for him, just what in the hell does anyone expect Blatt to do? Go Great Santini on him? Phil Jackson could sit a sullen Scottie Pippen, but Blatt’s in his first year with the team and has nowhere near enough juice to sit LeBron at a crucial juncture. Nor would he necessarily.

While hardly advocating this interpretation it is possible Blatt wanted to know that LeBron’s attitude was such that he wanted to take the shot, that he demanded it. After the game Blatt likened it to when he goes out to dinner. “More often than not,” he bragged, “I get the check. You want to know why? Because I take it. Bron takes responsibility.”

Yet despite all this — good reasons why LeBron should inbound, why Smith should take the shot, why Blatt should listen to his star and be comfortable with his input and respect his desire to take it on his shoulders after failing time and time again. That’s called not shrinking from the moment.

Indeed, it seems strange that J.R. Smith asked Blatt "Are you sure?” to the somewhat leading query whether with Smith had doubts about the coach’s call. Especially on a play that was presumably going to him. (Really who else on the floor would it go to?)

That raises questions too. Does this mean that J.R. Smith is afraid of the moment? Should we be worried that Smith would rather LeBron take the responsibility for him?

Let us note that’s not our belief, simply demonstrating how easily it is to spin something. (You’re probably familiar with the technique if you’ve been alive for two decades.) It’s just – as the Dude keenly suggests – “our opinion, man," but it seems like the press has a hard-on against Blatt. (They would probably accuse us of having a hard-on for him.)

We’re not interested in advocating one over the other just presenting an alternative to the seemingly monolithic way the press sometimes reads these things. It certainly behooves any reporter to rake up some good muck. That’s how newspaper’s have made their money since the days of Citizen Kane.

That Orson Welles, his move and Randolph Hearst’s machine-gun toting, terrorist daughter are better known than once the most famous newspaper man in the land, probably says enough about earning your bank in the gossip business.

Blatt screwed up hard on the timeout and the inbounds play, setting the stage for LeBron’s comments to spark a narrative. It’s always easiest to write about the last thing that happened than the first, and some people can’t remember much further back.

There’s plenty of heat around controversy whether it’s accurate or not. As inaccurate rumors are rarely called out in the media – who would risk their ladder-climbing by slagging the bias of their mates? – there’s little reason to worry if what you peddle is bullshit so long as it keeps lighting that red button above the camera.

It’s sad that this inspiring victory is somehow marred by the fact that, in their telling, LeBron carried the team to victory in spite of Blatt, when the team’s struggles could just as easily (and incorrectly) ascribe the near-loss to James’ inefficient offense, large number of turnovers and wasted possessions (all series) where he failed to initiate action with the ball on offense for ten second stretches.

Apparently you’re not allowed to make excuses if you lose or get any credit if you win. Tough job. Even tougher when your star throws your play-call under the bus.

Of course the fact that LeBron changed Blatt’s play isn’t necessarily throwing Blatt under the bus. HOWEVER, LeBron James is an exceptionally media-savvy operator. Could he have been blithely ignorant of the effect this would have on the media? The assumption is “no,” but it sort of allows LeBron to have his cake and eat it too.

He wanted the glory for saying, I will do it for us. Of course, he hoarded the blame as well after the game and has done so all series. He takes responsibility, meanwhile he (not so) subtly undermines confidence in the coach in the public’s eyes at the very least. Does he need to be Aloe Blacc that bad?

Blatt creates his own problems with a high manner that may rub these humble Midwestern folk wrong. He causes issues for the press because he won’t say anything bad about his own players. He also won’t say anything bad, if he can help it, about other teams’ players. He can’t afford to say anything bad about the referees. That’s a little problematic in terms of dramatic potential.

As he doesn’t give them a lot to work with, he winds up a lightning rod for their own criticism/narratives, which probably serves a purpose in attracting attention away from the players. Perhaps that’s just circumstance and he doesn’t deserve any credit for that, and ultimately who can complain when you’re coaching for the best player in the world, amirite? [/canned applause]

(Blatt does complain. Though unwilling to throw his players under the bus, he’s not above campaigning for a little credit. As a new kid he won’t get it and should get used to it. It’s one of the thirty most prized positions in all of basketball and should be embraced with gratitude not tinged with bitterness whether or not the criticism if fair.)

The whole episode draws me back to a couple conversations we’ve had with Chicago Bulls scribe Sam Smith during the series. The topic was respect and whether it should be given (to a coach) or something a player may demand be earned.

“Michael didn’t embrace Phil right away. He wanted to see what he had, but his overriding thing — and that was taught through his father and Dean Smith — was that you respected authority,” said the acclaimed author of Jordan Rules. “Michael was a believer in authority. It was your duty as a player to respect authority and that was number one.”

“He respected the position it didn’t’ matter who the coach was,” Smith said. “Even if he had differences with the coach he believed you listen to what the coach said you followed instructions and these notions over the years that Michael got coaches fired was completely erroneous.”

Nobody’s blaming James. He hit the winning shot. So why we got to hate on the coach? Especially when he finally got the message and played Mozgov in the fourth with fine results. Just like the drummer, someone needs to give a little love to Coach Blatt. This ain’t no cakewalk, and as LeBron said, they win as a unit, they can take the shame and blame as one too. Except Tyronn Lue, he saved our bacon and is honorary man of the year!


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