CHICAGO—Not long after nearly costing his team the game with a brain cramp and having his final play design chucked into the trash can by his star player, Cavaliers coach David Blatt wandered aimlessly into story time. A reporter had asked him whether Cleveland lives and dies with LeBron James, and Blatt should have been whistled for a five-second violation as he circled around to his point.
"This happens to me a lot, I don't know if it happens to you," Blatt began. "When I go out to dinner, usually I get the check. You know why?"
The reporter replied, with the obvious answer: "Because you've got more money."
Blatt plunged ahead undeterred. "No, that's not why," he continued. "The reason is because I take it. Bron: he takes the responsibility. He knows who he is and knows what he needs to do for this team, and he takes responsibility."
[daily_cut.NBA]Cleveland's 86–84 victory over Chicago in Game 4, delivered by James on a last-second buzzer beater, removed any and all doubt about who actually picks up the check for these Cavaliers. Guess what? It's not the rookie coach who bristles when he's referred to as a rookie coach, only to conduct himself like a rookie coach in the biggest game of the season.
The wisecracks have floated for months. You know, the ones about James being the franchise's player, coach and general manager. With his teammates dropping like flies due to injuries, James has heaped more and more of the responsibility on his own shoulders, jacking up dozens of shots and accepting the blame after every Cavaliers defeat.
After playing hero on Sunday by making a series-squaring and potentially season-saving buzzer beater, James made it clear that he deserved credit for the final play's execution and its design. "Coach drew up a great play," is a reliable go-to cliché for superstars when they sink game-winners, but here James said exactly the opposite. Blatt hadn't drawn up a great play at all. In fact, James revealed to reporters, he had personally nixed Blatt's play because it called for James to inbound the ball with the score tied at 84 and 1.5 seconds left.
“To be honest, the play that was drawn up, I scratched it," James said. "I just told coach, ‘Give me the ball. We’re either going to go to overtime or I’m going to win it for us.' It was that simple."
In this very city, almost exactly 21 years ago, legendary Bulls coach Phil Jackson drew up the final play for Toni Kukoc, rather than Scottie Pippen, his No. 1 option with Michael Jordan in the midst of his first retirement. Pippen famously responded to the perceived slight by benching himself. This is a very different time and a very different team, and James wasn't about to take his ball and go home. Instead, he flexed, overruling Blatt's call and leaving his coach with no choice but to go along with James's own plan.
“I was supposed to take the ball out," James continued. "I told coach, ‘There’s no way I’m taking the ball out, unless I can shoot it over the backboard and it goes in.’ I told him, ‘Have somebody else take the ball out, give me the ball, and everybody get out of the way.’”
The back-and-forth briefly left the Cavaliers scratching their heads in the huddle, according to guard J.R. Smith, whose 13 points were key to Cleveland's win. "There was doubt at first because coach had LeBron taking the ball out," Smith recalled. "I'm like, 'Are you sure?' ... Once we figured out who was definitely taking the ball out, I was sure [James] was going to do it."
It was telling that Blatt neglected to mention this sequence of events when he described the final play during his own postgame press conference. "We wanted to throw it right in over the shoulder," Blatt said. "Let him just take the shot, and he did. Great play." It was even more telling that James chose to lay out the sequence in detail. In pursuit of his fifth straight Finals appearance—without Kevin Love, with a hobbled Kyrie Irving, and with his own sprained ankle—James understandably wanted to give observers a sense of exactly how much weight he is pulling.
James's final shot was a beauty, and it salvaged what had been a rough outing during a choppy game for both teams. He finished with 25 points on just 10-of-30 shooting, only the second time in his career he has failed to score at least 30 points when attempting 30 or more shots, and he smirked at his own inefficiency afterward. "If I get one game where I can shoot 50%, we might be able to do some things." James also had eight turnovers, and was whistled for a critical offensive foul with Cleveland clinging to a two-point lead with less than 20 seconds left.
That foul set up a game-tying layup by Derrick Rose on the other end, a play that nearly led to utter disaster for the Cavaliers. As Cleveland prepared to inbound the ball after the made basket, Blatt charged toward the baseline and motioned with his hands to call timeout. The only problem? Cleveland had just burned all of its timeouts by calling three in quick succession while struggling to inbound the ball just seconds earlier. Luckily, Cleveland's associate head coach Tyronn Lue, a former NBA player with Finals experience, jumped up to grab Blatt, saving the coach from himself. Replays also appeared to show James waving at Blatt as he prepared to receive the inbounds pass.
Had the referees given Blatt the timeout he requested, Cleveland would have been hit with a technical foul, and Chicago would have gotten a free throw plus possession of the ball with the shot clock turned off. This was, unquestionably, a game-changing no-call. "I almost blew it," Blatt admitted, with nowhere to hide.
James was willing to excuse the near-catastrophe on the timeout call. "[Lue's intervention was] huge," James said. "We didn't have any timeouts at that point in time. We call one, we get a T. That's why we're a unit. That's why we're a team. Players make mistakes, coaches make mistakes. We have to be able to cover for each other. T. Lue did that by covering for Blatt."
Compare James's statements regarding the non-timeout and the final play, and the message is loud and clear: An in-the-moment blunder can be forgiven, but a conscious strategic decision to take the game out of James's hands won't be.
It goes without saying that Blatt is unbelievably fortunate the officiating crew of Scott Foster, Jason Phillips and Tom Washington either didn't see or chose to ignore his call. Imagine the alternate universe: Cleveland loses to go down 3-1 in the series and Blatt goes down alongside Chris Webber in the history books. Would the Cavaliers have been able to recover from that to win three straight? Would Blatt have been able to survive the storm that surely would have been headed his way.
Those hypothetical questions fall by the wayside now thanks to James, who had watched in disbelief as Rose banked in a buzzer-beating three-pointer to win Game 3 on Friday. On the final possession on Sunday, James lost the ball as he drove the length of the court, but a video review gave possession to the Cavaliers along the baseline. Shadowed by Jimmy Butler, as always, James popped free to the left corner, received the pass on the move, squared up for the shot, and swished home the fadeaway shot as the buzzer sounded.
James was immediately mobbed by his teammates as he ran to mid-court. "In the moment, it's an unreal feeling," James said. "The first thing I wanted to do was greet my teammates. ... To be able to hit a shot like that for them means the world to me."
Rather than participate in the initial group celebration, Blatt walked away from the scene by himself, only stopping long enough to tap Brendan Haywood on the backside. Haywood, like the rest of his teammates, kept moving toward James.
There's no fighting for the check when you're a party of one.