ATLANTA — It was a swell start for David Blatt.
The Cleveland Cavaliers—his Cavaliers, at least for now—had come out catalyzed rather than comatose, compensating for the absence of sore-kneed birthday boy LeBron James as well as achy-ankled veteran forward Shawn Marion.
They were moving the ball, setting solid screens, knocking down shots, looking a lot like the home Hawks typically do, looking like we heard Blatt's European teams had typically looked.
And, after Mike Miller sent a perfect skip pass to plug-in starter Matthew Dellavedova, and Dellavedova splashed a three-pointer for a 12-5 lead, Blatt bounced out toward center court to make sure he slapped five hands for their work well-done.
The celebration would be short-lived, as underrated Atlanta, missing Al Horford due to nausea, rallied into the lead by quarter's end and survived a scoring spree from Kyrie Irving (22 second-half points) to win, 109-101. Still, this was a rare night that Blatt couldn't really lose, so long as the available members of his squad showed some spunk, which they certainly did.
"I really thought we came out and we competed," Blatt said. "I really saw a team that was together, despite missing 50 percent of the normal rotation. And I thought, against a very, very good team, by all accounts, we had our chances to win the game, which we missed. Certainly, a good effort, a team effort, a team that was together and fighting, and a team that had a chance to win."
The Cavaliers weren't actually without 50 percent of their normal rotation, even if you count the listless Kevin Love (1-of-8 shooting) leaving for good with back spasms in third quarter, unless you also include Anderson Varejao, who will be out for the season due to a torn Achilles and isn't part of the equation anymore.
Blatt has shown a propensity, in his first NBA season, to cite adversity after losses, in the same sentence as he insists he isn't making excuses.
After this loss, he also gushed about how Irving, who coincidentally had publicly supported him Monday, "played his heart out" in scoring 35 points Tuesday, calling the fourth-year point guard "a wonderful, wonderful young man that understands what this is about and is doing everything he can to impact in a positive way."
Perhaps Blatt was selling all of this a bit hard.
Still, he should be cut a break on this occasion, because it came during what even VH1 wouldn't have labeled his Best Week Ever.
If Blatt didn't fully understand what it was like to serve as the coach of a team featuring professional sports' most scrutinized superstar, he certainly does now, after two stories—one on ESPN.com and one on the Northeast Ohio Media Group site—that provided flashbacks to 2010 and James' tumultuous first season in Miami.
Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein's ESPN.com article reported a disconnect between Blatt and the players, as well as "rising concern in team circles about the level of response that Blatt is getting on the floor," something that was obvious merely by observation.
The NEOMG article, written by Chris Haynes, was also primarily about Blatt. But it included a line near the end about how, in more general terms, and "if his hand is forced," James "won’t hesitate to make the appropriate business decision if it means bolting."
For the purposes of this piece, let's deal largely with the first article, since it's of more immediate import.
After all, James' "Coming Home" essay focused on the "bigger than basketball" reasons to rejoin the Cavaliers, and that essentially boxes him into a lasting career commitment to Cleveland or, at the least, a commitment that lasts for a couple of seasons. (Since he has a one-year opt-out, his leverage can always be demonstrated as he negotiates the length of his next deal.)
Blatt and his bosses are boxed-in, too, though for different reasons. The Cavaliers' owner, Dan Gilbert, has no shot to shed his reputation as impulsive and inconsistent if he replaces Blatt during the season, not after three coach firings, including Mike Brown twice, over the past four years.
Blatt was ultimately Gilbert's choice. That choice, made while the Cavaliers were seemingly still rebuilding and prior to the roster's superstar infusion, was widely hailed as inspired at the time. No one can argue that it has worked especially well so far, not with the Cavaliers, with their three All-Stars, idling between the East's elite and its stragglers, firmly in the fifth spot.
But Blatt has hardly had it easy, and it's not just because the NBA game and culture require adjustment, notably the much different dynamic between coaches and stars, with European coaches swinging the hammers and American coaches perpetually trying not to get nailed.
Blatt is essentially on his own. His family is overseas, as are his coaching confidants. He has no longstanding connections to anyone on his staff—just a short-term one with former Hawks and Bucks head coach Larry Drew—with his assistants consisting of holdovers (Jim Boylan), promotions (James Posey) or contenders for the position he ultimately got (Tyronn Lue).
That last hire may have created perceived complications under any circumstances, but it looks especially short-sighted now, after James' return intensified the spotlight.
Even if everyone on the staff truly is trying to pull together—and, to be clear, there's no evidence that any of the assistants aren't—that doesn't erase the media's assumption of split allegiances among the players, especially when the search's bridesmaid, Lue, is now the league's highest-paid assistant.
So the coaching speculation isn't going away, not unless Blatt goes deep into the playoffs. It might not dissipate entirely even if he does, or even if James speaks out more strongly on his behalf than he did on Monday.
It might not, in part because there's no Pat Riley figure in the Cavaliers organization who is capable of putting it to rest, either by making a public statement or, as Riley did during the rocky start of 2010-11, drawing some lines behind the scenes, standing unequivocally behind the man on the sidelines.
As ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy told Bleacher Report last month: "People were trying to make it out that (Erik) Spoelstra was in trouble when they started out. But anyone who really knew and understood how Miami functions knew that there was no trouble. Zero. Right? That was people trying to drive trouble into Miami, but that was never going to happen."
It took awhile—Heat insiders will say that it really took well into the 2011-12 season—but eventually James gained sufficient belief in Spoelstra not only to allow Riley's protege to completely coach him, but to start parroting some of Spoelstra's principles, from a leadership position, to the rest of the team.
Building that sort of trust takes some time and work, as well as much trial and error, as James has continued to reiterate. Nor it is the only, or even most important, aspect of cooperative team building on James' agenda. He's made it plain that he considers camaraderie to be critical to a team's success, perhaps even more so than coaching; he's repeatedly said that he was coming back to Cleveland regardless of who the coach was.
And, as you know, he didn't return to his old teammates in Cleveland—only Varejao was still around. The rest were new, except for Mike Miller and James Jones, two fellow former "Heatles" that he brought with him. And it's clear, through three months of his visible locker room interactions, that James remains most comfortable and connected with those two—as well as former Cavaliers guard and current volunteer assistant Damon Jones.
Tuesday, James waited for Miller and James Jones to shower before leaving Philips Arena together, and then, on their walk through the tunnel, they took turns crooning verses of Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler."
"You've got to know when to hold 'em."
"And you've got to know when to fold 'em."
It's not time for the Cavaliers to fold on Blatt's coaching tenure. Not yet. Not at 18-13. Not even at any point in this first season. But Blatt does need to figure out a way to get his team, all of his team, to more consistently reflect his philosophy on the floor. That, along with their record, is how coaches are judged.
It wasn't hard to find a model Tuesday, not with Mike Budenholzer in front of the other bench. Budenholzer had never been a head coach in the NBA prior to last season, but his imprint was all over the Hawks throughout, even if it didn't result in as many wins after Horford's injury.
Horford had played in all 30 games this season before nausea kept him out against the Cavaliers. But the system is so entrenched now, that the Hawks looked virtually the same without him.
James, prior to Tuesday's shootaround, when it seemed he would be playing in the evening, praised the Hawks as "the San Antonio Spurs of the East," a reference to Budenholzer's tenure as a Gregg Popovich assistant.
He called the system "identical" to what Popovich uses, a system that James saw in all its power in the 2014 Finals. "They move the ball; they share the ball; it doesn't matter who gets the credit," James said. "All that matters is the W at the end of the game, and that's what they're trying to implement down here. And they're very successful with it."
But it's not easily achieved.
"Coaching, and personnel," said Thabo Sefolosha, in his first Hawks season after five-plus years in more star-studded Oklahoma City.
"I think we've got guys on our team that are unselfish by nature, and we're buying into what coach is preaching. A guy like Kyle (Korver), like Paul (Millsap), like Al, they could be demanding, to touch the ball down in the post and get more shots. But nobody is really like this by nature. It's definitely different from other teams in this league."
Elton Brand, now a Hawks center/forward, has played for five organizations over 15 seasons.
"Our team buys into sharing the ball because that's the only system that we have," Brand said. "We don't even have iso plays. Every other team I've ever been on, you get the ball in the block, you get the ball on the wing, you get an iso, it's set two screens and get this guy a basket.
"Maybe after timeouts (one player is featured), but other than that, you've got freedom. If you're open, you shoot the ball. And these guys enjoy playing like that, and I think it carries over to defense, too."
Millsap credited Budenholzer and his staff for setting the ball-sharing tone with a group of "unselfish guys" but laughed at Brand's assertion of no isolations.
"I wouldn't say all that," Millsap said. "But coach don't like 'em. I can say that. Sometimes they just happen. I'm not sure it's anything called."
Naturally, they will happen more frequently for the Cavaliers, because no one on the Hawks' roster, not even Jeff Teague, has the playmaking ability of James or Irving.
Still, James, even with more singular talents, said he believes that Cleveland can adopt some of those collective principles.
"San Antonio has got guys who need the ball as well, but they still play the game the right way," James said. "But every system is different. It doesn't matter how you get into it, it's just how the game is flowing, and everyone feeling comfortable. My years in Miami, except for the first year, we didn't play the type of basketball San Antonio played, but we played our style. And we got the ball moving from side to side, we got everyone involved.
"And at the end of the game, when we needed a shot made by anybody, he could make it, because everybody felt comfortable throughout the 48 minutes. That's something that, we've had games like that here. (And) we haven't had games like that. But I think we know that's the right way to play."
Blatt knows it, too, and has undoubtedly tried to instill it.
In the end, what matters is not what the Cavaliers, even James, say about him.
What matters is the way in which they play for him.
It's up to a coach to convince a team to play with passion and poise. That's what Budenholzer has done in Atlanta. Blatt deserves more time to do the same in Cleveland. Still, it needs to start reasonably soon, because he's coaching under unique conditions. Everyone is watching the Cavaliers like hawks, while the public is cavalier about watching the Hawks.
Blatt needs to get the Cavaliers connecting in a way that allows them to climb the standings. Otherwise, four other teams—the Raptors, Wizards, Hawks and Bulls—in the East are good enough to get away, planting the Cavaliers in the fifth seed permanently. That could force Cleveland to get past three of them, in separate playoff series, all while starting on the road, just to get to the NBA Finals.
If, as a result, the season ends earlier than expected, the drumbeat for Blatt's departure will only grow louder, drowning out any questioning of whether it's deserved.