THE COACHING MATCHUP in the Finals pits the ultimate NBA insider versus a total outsider. Golden State's Steve Kerr owns a fistful of championship rings from his playing days, and served stints as a successful front-office executive and respected broadcaster. Cavaliers coach David Blatt, by comparison, arrived in Cleveland last summer having spent three decades as a player and coach in, among other places, Israel and Russia. Not quite Siberia, but pretty close.
Blatt found himself the center of attention for the wrong reasons during the second round of the playoffs. In Game 4 against the Bulls he attempted to call a timeout he didn't have with fewer than 10 seconds left. LeBron James bailed him out by hitting a game-winning three—and then proceeded to tell the media that he overruled Blatt's original play call. What should have been a triumphant, stress-relieving victory transformed into a referendum of Blatt's authority, competence and lack of familiarity with the NBA game.
Blatt's rocky postseason ride stands as a microcosm of Cleveland's season. These Cavaliers seemed destined for an early playoff exit as recently as mid-January, before the acquisitions of Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and Smith catapulted the team back onto a title track. Midseason trades are often viewed as risky business—just ask the Mavericks about Rajon Rondo—but Cleveland's roster-flipping has proved to be all reward. Blatt memorably compared coaching to life as a fighter pilot, and he's been forced to make a lengthy series of course corrections along the way.
Hired last summer to oversee a youth-oriented rebuilding effort, he instead found himself coaching a superstar-laden squad facing title expectations and intense scrutiny. Thanks to the trades and a series of injuries, the roster he started the season with bears little resemblance to the current group: James was the only member of Cleveland's opening-night starting five that also started Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Blatt synthesized the incoming pieces without skipping a beat. With Mozgov in the middle, he altered his pick-and-roll coverages so that the 7'1" center could stay near the basket instead of stepping out to pressure ballhandlers. With Smith and Shumpert on the wings, Blatt gave both the green light to launch from outside, thereby spreading the floor around James.
The results were immediate. Cleveland's defense improved from 26th before Jan. 23, the date when all of the new pieces were assembled, to 12th after. The Cavs made meaningful progress on their biggest early-season weakness—interior defense—as they improved to 18th from 28th in opponent field goal percentage inside five feet. The Cavaliers also reached their potential as an elite offense, improving from seventh to first.
Blatt has worked more on-the-fly magic in the playoffs. After Kevin Love went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in the first round, Blatt's first inclination was to replace Love's perimeter shooting by using Mike Miller, a career 40.7% three-point shooter. However, it became clear that Miller, 35, was doing more harm than good, and Blatt reacted swiftly to a Game 1 loss to the Bulls by moving sixth man Tristan Thompson into the starting lineup. Thompson has displayed an uncanny ability to extend possessions on the offensive glass, and he's protected the rim at the other end. Cleveland is now 8--1 since his promotion and everyone, especially James, has been singing his praises.
When Kyrie Irving was the next to go down, missing two games in the conference finals with knee tendinitis, Blatt played every card in his deck. He used Mozgov and Thompson together to punish the Hawks for their undersized, spread approach. He also downsized by using Thompson at center and James at power forward, surrounding them with three shooters in Smith, Shumpert and chippy Aussie Matthew Dellavedova. Blatt even went with an ultraversatile, nontraditional lineup that utilized James as the offense's initiator and featured four players between 6'5" and 6'8" around him. The thoroughly overwhelmed Hawks were swept.
A mere 16 days after James had publicly upstaged Blatt, the two stood arm in arm. "You deserve this," Blatt told James. The coach understood that James is always the story, but Blatt has been part of this one too.