David Blatt's experience shines at NBA Finals
"I think he’s done a helluva job," star LeBron James says about his coach.
A year ago, David Blatt was coaching Maccabi Tel Aviv, a team that had gotten into the habit of putting itself in precarious positions in its chase for the Euroleague Cup title before improbably finding a way out. That group was 5-1 in Top 16 play, before losing five of its next eight games. It trailed CSKA Moscow by 15 in the cup semifinals before rallying for a difficult win. It was a major underdog against Real Madrid in the final, but came back from a double-digit deficit to land in overtime and wind up with a 98-86 overtime victory.
As a coach, Blatt knows what it is to have his back against the wall. That, it turns out, is useful experience at this time of year, coaching a Cleveland Cavaliers team in the NBA Finals and forced to play the remainder of the best-of-seven series against the Golden State Warriors without injured regulars Kevin Love and star point guard Kyrie Irving. Led by all-star LeBron James and Blatt's creative defense schemes, the underdog Cavs are hanging tough. The Warriors are up 3-2 after winning Sunday night. Game 6 is Tuesday in Cleveland.
It’s not unlike the situation his Tel Aviv team was in last year.
“A lot of similarities,” Blatt told From The Grapevine. “We're missing some guys and [last year] we really had to be more as a team than we were as a group of individuals. We recognized that and understood that and just faced the challenge with a lot of confidence and belief in ourselves and found a way. Just continued to find a way.”
Blatt, along with Warriors coach Steve Kerr, has been hailed for his status as a first-year head coach in the NBA Finals, the first time two NBA rookie coaches are meeting in the Finals since the early days of the league. But Blatt, of course, is no rookie. He is an Israeli-American who played at Princeton for legendary coach Pete Carril, then went on to star as a player in Israel after immigrating in the early 1980s. After his playing career ended because of an injury, Blatt began building his international resume as a coach.
Blatt began with the Israeli team Hapoel Galil Elyon, before eventually stretching his roots all around Europe, coaching for Maccabi Tel Aviv before moving on to Russia, Italy, back to Russia (as national team coach) and Turkey. His heart, though, remained in Israel, and when the opportunity arose to return to Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2010, he leapt at it. He is one of the most successful American coaches in European basketball history. Winning the 2014 Euroleague title was his pinnacle.
He has not disappointed in the NBA, either. His .639 winning percentage ranks as the best among Cavaliers coaches in history. But he came in with high expectations, and not just because of his European resume. Blatt was taking over a team that had just re-acquired LeBron James, the league’s biggest star.
Blatt admitted that his relationship with James was a work in progress, but their pairing has been mostly successful. The Cavs were 19-20 in January, when rumors about Blatt’s job security surfaced. They finished the year 53-29, though.
“Like any relationship, you meet, you go out a few times, you start to talk,” Blatt explained. “You get to know each other. See the things that you like, things that you like less. If you're really interested in being together, you work on those things. And in time the relationship grows and deepens and hopefully flourishes. Ours has, and here we are happily together in the NBA Finals.”
James told From The Grapevine that he understands that the coaches assigned to work with him get more scrutiny than usual. But, he said, Blatt has come through despite that extra pressure.
“We knew that a lot of people were going to say things that, you know, didn’t mean much, but that’s just what they have to do,” James said. “That’s what helps sales. People love reading the negative things more than the positive things, so I think he’s handled his situation unbelievably. Being a rookie coach in the NBA, being able to take his team to the Finals, I think he’s done a helluva job.”
Blatt has received many well wishes from his fans and supporters in Israel, where the team is simply known as David Blatt's Cavaliers. “It feels like there are 7 million Cleveland fans here in Israel,’’ Ido Gur, a television host on Israel’s 24-hour sports channel, told the Wall Street Journal.
And with history on the line, we're sure they're watching with bated breath.
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