INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Despite the fact David Blatt is in his first season with the Cleveland Cavaliers and in the NBA, he is sensitive to those who refer to him as a rookie head coach.
This is not his first rodeo, although in the American basketball landscape, it really is. While the Euroleague features intense basketball with a number of NBA-caliber players competing in crowded arenas with horns glaring, it is not the NBA.
So, indeed, this is Blatt’s first playoff appearance following his first season as coach. This is the first year he has not only coached an NBA team but has coached LeBron James.
Blatt was quick to correct a reference to Sunday’s opener against the Celtics being his first postseason game. He led Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Euroleague championship just last summer. He coached the Russian Olympic team to the bronze medal at the 2012 London Games.
He has coached in monumental games and coached star players, but never LeBron, never a roster that included Kyrie Irving, an All-Star MVP and Olympic MVP, and Kevin Love, considered one of the better power forwards in the game.
That requires management. That requires knowing when to scream and when to allow the players to police themselves. The Cavaliers were 19-20 after a road loss at Phoenix on Jan. 13, hardly the record of an NBA Finals contender. There were assertions that LeBron was running the team, disregarding Blatt’s direction, primarily because of his lack of NBA experience.
Regardless if that was true, the Cavaliers were able to adjust, finishing the season 34-9. James and Blatt have blended to help the Cavaliers become a prohibitive favorite to reach the NBA Finals, despite the difficult beginnings.
“There are stars and then there are superstars in this league,” Blatt said after practice Saturday. “There’s a little bit of a difference but I’m lucky to be coaching superstars that are also good guys, with their hearts and minds in the right place. Sure it’s a little bit different [but] when they’re good character people, it’s not a difficult thing. It’s a joyful thing.”
For Blatt, 55, the transition to the NBA was made easier by having three All-Stars, regardless of their needs and challenges in working together. James needed a midseason break because of injuries. Irving got off to a disheartening start because he was so accustomed to dominating the ball in his first three seasons.
Love still doesn’t appear comfortable with the offense and there is speculation that he will opt for free agency this summer. But for now, Love is an essential part of the Cavaliers’ quest to win an NBA title. Blatt admitted the experience of his trio has helped his transition to the NBA.
“When you got guys with great experience or the ability to do things that maybe you couldn’t even consider doing in another situation, to have the experience to know how to handle different situations because they’ve been through them and up to the challenge because of the talent level and basketball intelligence,’’ Blatt said of his Big Three’s experience. “It in many ways makes it easier.”
Still, Blatt wants his overseas time acknowledged and respected.
He won five Israeli League titles and was a four-time league coach of the year. The Framingham native returned to the United States to give NBA coaching an honest shot before he was considered too old. The transition has been interesting, but there has been much less chatter about Blatt’s lack of NBA service time as the Cavaliers have begun to dominate.
“I am still learning; I don’t consider myself a novice but this is my first year coaching in the league,” he said. “I’ve recognized that. I’ve certainly owned up to that. I’ve still got a lot to learn. My guys on the staff help me a great deal. The players certainly do. I try to give them everything I have, always being mindful I have to get up to speed and be able to contribute mine [knowledge] in the right way and the proper times. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of that this year. That’s part of that process of me becoming a good NBA coach.”
James has been called the Cavaliers’ coach and general manager this season, and he said he met with his teammates to emphasize the importance of the postseason and the distinct differences from the regular season. He didn’t say whether Blatt was part of that meeting.
“It’s definitely a difference challenge for me,” James said of this year’s playoffs. “I’m going in with a much younger team, with a much [more] inexperienced team than I’ve had the last four years. I look forward to the challenge. In order for us to ultimately be the best team we can be in the postseason, the Big Three has to be great. It’s that simple.”
While the Cavaliers were a juggernaut for the final three months of the regular season, they still finished second in the Eastern Conference and a number observers are picking them to lose to Chicago in the second round if they get past the Celtics. Whatever happens this season, the credit or blame will be squarely on the shoulders of Blatt and James.
So the pressure is on.