CLEVELAND -- A voracious reader and a former literature major, Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt has talked about someday wanting to write his own book. If he does, this season would be an incredible place to start.
It's been a daunting past nine months with at times heavy criticism and limited rewards. But Blatt is still here and still firing off spirited responses. While dealing with a series of challenging circumstances, many of them out of his control, he is passing the tests and juggling extremes to keep his team in the game.
Blatt made a handful of adjustments for the Cavs in a badly-needed Game 2 win on Wednesday against the Chicago Bulls. He changed his staring lineup, inserting Tristan Thompson, and he changed some of his defensive coverages. Both moves worked and contributed to Cleveland's 106-91 win that evened the series.
For all the speeches, practice plans, play calls and the like, a core evaluation point for an NBA coach is to judge how he handles the chess game of a playoff series. This can be harsh because sometimes the talent disparity makes it unfair, but it's just such an important metric to judge whether the man with the job can cut it or not.
Coming into this series Blatt was dealt a fierce hand, losing Kevin Love and then J.R. Smith, a situation that both demanded strategic smoke-and-mirrors while at the same time limiting his options to do so. Winning under unusual duress is what Blatt learned in 20-plus years coaching in Europe, where situations often resemble the Wild West when compared to the relative order of the NBA.
It can be said he's so far getting through it much like he's gone through the rest of the season: It's been turbulent but ultimately effective.
In the first round, Blatt made some moves that helped neutralize the Boston Celtics' only real threat, Isaiah Thomas, for the last two games. Wednesday, Thompson delivered energy and rebounding, helping the Cavs to a great start, and his team's defense was much better. Preparing, motivating and maneuvering a defense is also a central tenet of a coach's calling card at this level.
After a shaky Game 1 in this regard, where he may have been late in fixing some strategy, Blatt earned his money in Game 2. Because Blatt has been a giant target when he's had struggles, it is only fair to acknowledge when he gets it done.
Depending on the prism you're looking through, Blatt can come off as confident or arrogant. Throughout this season, he's been involved in one battle of wills or another almost all the time. Many of them have been with the media, which has changed him from an early-season charmer to a late-season chider.
It is a regular occurrence for Blatt to scold those who ask him tough questions or snap at reports, including Wednesday night when he complained that a reporter from Cleveland.com had successfully and correctly broken a story on his planned lineup change. A Princeton graduate, Blatt is usually one of the smartest in any room, and there are plenty of times when his demeanor will make it clear he knows this.
He's mentioned a time or two that he did his senior thesis at Princeton on author Bernard Malamud. It's safe to guess he may often regard that document as being superior to many of the stories written about him. For his academic superiority and decades learning as a coach, though, sometimes he seems to fail to consider how his personality can negatively affect those in the room. If it happens with the media who see him every day, there's a fair chance it sometimes happens in the locker rooms and huddles, too.
In an example from this week, Blatt was asked before Game 1 to compare his European playoff coaching experience to what is facing him in the NBA. This is a question that has been asked in various ways of Blatt since he was hired last June, and he's probably grown tired of it.
"You don't really have, and understandably so, a perspective or a feel for what it's like for various different competitions overseas," Blatt said to the reporter who asked. "For me to start trying to compare or explain, it wouldn't come out right."
These dismissive answers to questions he finds annoying are routine. It's his right to do so, as Gregg Popovich often does. Blatt, like Popovich, has been doing this a long time, even if not in this environment. But while Blatt may enjoy a Popovich-like esteem elsewhere in the world, it's been a tough sell at times in this arena.
Of course, the much more important interactions are those he has with his players, most notably LeBron James. The players are with him much more than anyone else, including his family, who stayed in Israel as he made the vigorous journey back to his native country, but a foreign league. He's certainly made new bonds this year, but under the immense pressure that came with this job, he's also lost some contacts while sinking into the bunker this job has forced him to dig as a coping mechanism.
The relationship with James could probably be studied by a team of psychologists and produce various fascinating analyses. From the exterior, it's been one giant game of passive-aggressive theater. From James waiting more than six weeks to meet Blatt face-to-face after he signed with the Cavs, to his numerous and public contradictions, coaching James has probably generated some headaches for Blatt.
Though it does act as quite a salve when James does what he did Wednesday, which was put up 33 points in a display of brute force that willed the Cavs to victory. Without it, even Blatt's well-made game plan would've been rendered meaningless.
This is the nature of the NBA and, with James as the most powerful player in the league, this is part of the package. Even if this wasn't the package Blatt thought he was signing up for 11 months ago when he took over a team with scattered talent, big dreams and limited expectations -- before it morphed into the latest tour of the James circus.
There seems to be almost nothing that irritates Blatt more than being called a "rookie" NBA coach, even if he qualifies under the definition. This has been clear to everyone around the team since the first week of the season when Blatt chafed at being congratulated for his first win and declared he actually has hundreds of them already.
Yet James, in one of those displays of passive-aggression, still drops that word when talking about his coach. He did it again Monday. He did it within a compliment, too, proving he can play the language game as well as his coach when he wants to.
"We all have grown as a team and as a coaching staff; they've put us in position to succeed and it's because of him and the great coaching staff that we have," James said. "So for [Blatt] being a rookie coach in the NBA, it's been a learning experience every day and he's figured out a way to adjust."
Though these compliments, backhanded or not, have picked up over recent months, James has contradicted Blatt on so many matters large and small so many times publicly it's almost impossible to count. It's reasonable to assume it happens regularly in private as well.
If you were in Blatt's shoes, this would probably drive you a little crazy, too. For this reason, perhaps his unrelenting confidence makes him uniquely qualified for piloting the 747 that is coaching the highest-profile player on one of the highest-profile teams.
If Blatt wasn't 100 percent confident in his abilities and how his experience overseas supersedes the cultural and structural differences he must navigate every day, he probably never would have gotten this far.
When James and others challenged him by breaking off his system and changing it to their liking, when media reports about his job security surfaced, when he lost two starters in the middle of his first playoffs and was expected to just deal with it -- these situations might have broken even coaches with plenty more official NBA experience on their résumés.
Blatt has raised his chin and looked down at all of it, sniping back with the help of Israeli proverbs, bravado and belief. He's found ways to make concessions and workarounds. He's nowhere near the fiery sideline presence he was in Europe, but he still helped create a legit title contender.
He's found ways to make adjustments -- changing his defensive system and slashing his rotation after midseason trades helped unlock the Cavs' great second half of the season -- and has steadily shown improvement in learning the NBA game. Blatt is a better coach now than he was in October, and the Cavs have no doubt benefited from his relentless combativeness, even if sometimes there is collateral damage created by the personality that enables him to stay with it.
Bottom line: Blatt served his players and his team well the past few days. He struck back and then he congratulated himself for doing so.
"Thank you for asking about the pick-and-roll defense," Blatt said when its Game 2 success was mentioned. "I got a lot of questions last time when it wasn't so good, so I was hoping somebody was going to ask me about it this time, so I appreciate that."
Let's avoid the word that denotes Blatt's first-year NBA coaching status, and say he hasn't been around here that long. But he's already got a certain vintage. What the Cavs are hoping is that term comes to include the type of work he did the previous few days as well.