Saturday showcases start with Cavs/Bulls
To wrap up a week that’s began with the Cavaliers humiliated at home by Golden State, subsequently serving as the last straw for keeping David Blatt as head coach, they’ll see the Bulls. Among Eastern Conference teams, the Bulls remain Cleveland’s arch nemesis.
The basketball gods are certainly writing quite the script.
If there was ever a time to promote Tyronn Lue and lose Blatt, late in the afternoon on a Friday fit the bill, standard procedure to diffuse a big story. It’s also probably best to throw Lue into the fire immediately against rival Chicago in a game that will be televised nationally in the debut of ESPN’s NBA Saturday Primetime on ABC, a series of eight contests that will serve as showcase for the league.
Yes, you can safely assume there was some pre-meditation involved here. GM David Griffin didn’t consult with any players about the firing because he didn’t have to. The vibe in the locker room towards Blatt had already grown listless and disinterested. James already knew his days were numbered. They knew where he stood in terms of approval. Cleveland.com’s Chris Haynes reports Blatt was nearly dismissed after a 105-76 loss at Portland on Dec. 26 that followed a high-profile Christmas Day setback in Oakland.
Blatt ultimately cast in scapegoat role
Whether Blatt “deserved” to be fired is a subject for debate since it’s hard to argue that a different first-time head coach will be the x-factor that helps win a title, but Lue isn’t likely to hurt the cause. He’s learned the trade under Doc Rivers and played for Phil Jackson, Doug Collins and both Van Gundy brothers, so he’ll be able to handle himself.
Blatt made some major public missteps along the way last year, from openly disrespecting Kevin Love to nonsensical errors like trying to call a timeout he didn’t have in a critical Game 4 of last year’s East semis against the same Bulls team that will serve as Saturday night’s co-stars once again.
Lue saved him last May 10 in Chicago, yanking him back before referees noticed he was frantically trying to get their attention. His meltdown progressed a few moments later when after a stoppage in play, he tried drawing up a play that didn’t call for LeBron James to get the ball with less than a second left. LeBron ended up draining a memorable buzzer-beater that tied the series 2-2.
Blatt’s days were numbered after that game. Unless he won a title or presided over the type of start the Warriors have enjoyed, he was a goner. James threw him under the bus post-game because that’s how he leads. He holds people accountable publicly and believes in tough love.
"To be honest, the play that was drawn up, I scratched it," James confessed unprompted when discussing the play last May. "I just told coach, 'Just give me the ball. We're either going to go into overtime or I'm going to win it for us. It's that simple.
"I was supposed to take the ball out. 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.' So, I told him to have somebody else take the ball out, give me the ball and everybody get out the way."
Consider this full circle. Another high-profile matchup against the Bulls is on tap. Blatt is out of the way now, so the lamb has been sacrificed. Expect Love to stay put and grow more comfortable as James attempts to get him involved early to get him in a rhythm and Kyrie Irving to continue improving. The Cavs will move forward and put the Blatt era behind them so quickly that they won’t be able to prevent this looking like they’re trying to make him a scapegoat.
Never mind that they’re 13-3 with Irving back in the lineup or that they’ve scored at least 110 in five of their last 10 games, Cleveland has pulled the trigger on Blatt’s inevitable firing at a time where it’s easiest to move on. There’s still nearly three weeks of action before the All-Star break for Lue to set a tone and a month before the trade deadline to see whether all the pieces fit or a move is necessary. If anyone gets moved, it’s likely to be Timofey Mozgov, since he’s looked lost for most of the season. Ironically, he’s played his best basketball in weeks the past two games.
Despite the doom and gloom, the Cavs are actually coming off a pair of wins, having beaten the Nets and Clippers to improve to 30-11 despite a lack of belief in their head coach. The Bulls come off consecutive losses and will be playing on the second night of a back-to-back after a 110-101 loss in Boston on Friday. Jimmy Butler ended up collecting 28 points and 14 rebounds despite playing after a bout with the flu, so there’s danger his energy level could be less than where it normally is when he duels with James.
Derrick Rose added 27 and has looked springy of late, but he really struggled last time he played on consecutive nights, scoring just 9 points in 22 minutes. Chicago still has to err on the side of caution regarding his knees, so Aaron Brooks may be in line for increased minutes. The Bulls have lost the last four times they’ve played the second leg of a back-to-back.
Cleveland is a 10.5-point favorite against the team that still looms as their biggest challenge in the Eastern Conference. Despite all the drama the Warriors’ 132-98 rout at the Q unleashed for the Cavs, they’re still listed as the clear-cut favorite (-400) to win the East at Sportsbook.ag
Toronto (13-to-1) is listed ahead of Chicago, Atlanta, Indiana and Miami (15-to-1) as Cleveland’s top competition, but a healthy Bulls team remains a formidable hurdle. Joakim Noah has been lost for the season, but the presence of Butler, Rose, Pau Gasol makes them a tough out, especially given all the depth at first-year coach Fred Hoiberg’s disposal. Mike Dunleavy should return soon, while Kirk Hinrich always finds a way to be an asset against the Cavs.
Hinrich is questionable for Saturday’s game due to a quad contusion, so his potential absence is yet another reason Lue may have a prosperous debut. For what it’s worth, Blatt lost his first regular-season game as head coach against the Knicks before beating the Bulls the next night for his next win. Chicago was the opponent in this year’s season-opener, hosting a 97-95 win that served as Hoiberg’s first NBA win.
How will Lue do? Based on the script fate is writing, the result promises to be riveting, win or lose.
Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA