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Finals Jeopardy

David Blatt was a victim of expectations in Cleveland, where LeBron James isn't the only one obsessed with winning it all

A WALL-SIZED photograph of Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena, taken moments before an NBA Finals game last June, hangs in David Griffin's office. In the photo the seats are full and the fans are waving blue glow sticks. It is suggested to Griffin, the Cavaliers' general manager, that this is the moment he wishes to re-create. "No," he replies. "I hate this picture." Every morning, when he reports to work at the Cavs' practice facility, the image greets him and taunts him. "It only reminds me," he says, "that we lost."

Griffin and LeBron James relate on several levels, but this is the most fundamental one: Reaching the Finals is not enough. James did not return to Cleveland from Miami two summers ago, and Griffin did not sign off on a nearly $110 million payroll this year, to be the Warriors' patsies. After Golden State beat Cleveland for the championship last year, Warriors guard Leandro Barbosa spotted Griffin in the hallways outside the visiting locker room. Barbosa, who befriended Griffin when they were both in Phoenix, wrapped him in a jubilant hug, As Griffin walked to his car, he smelled the champagne on his shirt and made a face at the fumes. "I'm never doing this again," he told his wife, Meredith.

But that's where the Cavaliers appeared headed. They had the East's best record under coach David Blatt, and even after they fired him last Friday, they're still likely to fetch the conference's top seed. Yet it was clear in a 99--95 road loss to the Spurs on Jan. 14 and a 132--98 obliteration by the Warriors on Jan. 18 in Cleveland, that the Cavs remain far short of the only standard that really matters.

"I think this team is in pretty good position," Blatt said last Thursday as he chided reporters for hyperventilating over the Golden State rout. "Frankly, pretty good is not what we're here for," Griffin clarified the next day in a press conference announcing Blatt's ouster. "I'm not leaving an unprecedented team payroll to chance." Of course, that is exactly what he's doing, by replacing an experienced strategist in Blatt with a rookie head coach in Tyronn Lue. If he wanted to minimize risk, he could have reached out to Tom Thibodeau, who led the Bulls to the playoffs in all five of his seasons with Chicago and is taking the year off after being fired last May.

But if you ask Warriors coach Steve Kerr or Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, implementing strategy is not as important as building culture. That's where Blatt fell short and Lue showed promise as a Cavs assistant, developing trust with veterans while remaining loyal to his boss.

Griffin, who worked with Kerr, then the Suns' GM, for three years in Phoenix, kept returning to two terms at his press conference: spirit and connectedness, concepts hard to define but easy to recognize. The Warriors embody these qualities. So do the Spurs. The Cavaliers do not. For months Griffin worried that the Cavs operated without joy, even when they won.

Asking the 38-year-old Lue to create esprit de corps by the time the playoffs start in April is asking a ton. But it was not happening under Blatt. Griffin swore he acted alone on Friday and, obviously, no one believed him. The narrative in Cleveland, real or perceived, was set the day James returned: The organization writes the checks; he makes the calls.

Still, Griffin is not the kind of GM who cowers behind his computer. He travels with the team, spends time in the locker room, plops down next to guys at the cold tub. "I didn't ask anybody's opinion," he said. He didn't have to.

Griffin hired Blatt from Israel in June 2014 to guide a young roster, led by Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Andrew Wiggins, that was praying for an eighth seed. Three weeks later James announced his return to Cleveland, changing the franchise and Blatt's job description. He didn't have to develop talent. He needed to win hardware. The subtle undermining from James did not help, though he became more supportive of Blatt this season.

Perhaps Griffin overreacted, firing a coach who had won 67.5% of his games, who steered Cleveland through last year's playoffs without Kevin Love and through the first two months of this season without Irving. Normally a 30--11 start would warrant ovations and extensions, but the Warriors (40--4 through Sunday) and Spurs (38--6) have shrunk everybody's margins.

About this time a year ago Griffin acquired center Timofey Mozgov from the Nuggets, along with guards Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith from the Knicks. The deals effectively saved Cleveland's season. Again, the GM is putting himself in the crosshairs, right next to his star. Such is life with LeBron James: high drama, high stakes.

Five months from now the Cavaliers will probably end up in an identical spot as they would have under Blatt: in the Finals, against the Warriors, surrounded by all those glow sticks. Chances are the final, haunting image will come out the same. But the Cavs made clear on Friday they'll do anything to change it.


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