INDEPENDENCE: Locker room issues were at the heart of the matter when Cavaliers General Manager David Griffin fired coach David Blatt in January.

The move wasn’t prompted by how the players were getting along, but more by their lack of respect for their supposed leader and issues with how he was using their talents.

Regardless, questions about the Cavs’ cohesiveness persist.

Going into Monday’s opener of the Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Atlanta Hawks, the Cavs seem united in support of coach Tyronn Lue. But whether they can get along well enough to win an NBA championship may fuel sports radio and television conversation every step of the way.

Griffin likes the camaraderie he sees, saying, “We have a good spirit to us.” In a one-on-one interview after practice Wednesday at the Cleveland Clinic Courts, he said it was the weight of expectations and the hype surrounding the defending champion Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs, not LeBron James’ cryptic tweets, that dragged down the Cavs during the dog days of the regular season.

“I think expectation was very difficult for us,” Griffin said. “People talked about our team like we were a major disappointment and we were a wire-to-wire leader in the Eastern Conference. I think it got to be very heavy here because for some reason what we were doing wasn’t enough. I think it’s because of the success of Golden State and San Antonio — they were on such a record-setting pace and we weren’t doing that. I think for some reason we became a little bit beleaguered.”

The Cavs’ internal strife was a subject of discussion on ESPN’s The Sports Reporters before the sweep of the Detroit Pistons in the first round of the playoffs, with the consensus that the Cavs are old, slow and a team with bad chemistry. While Griffin disputes the latter tag, he doesn’t believe the players heard the criticism.

“I don’t think our guys felt anything relative to the negativity around them,” Griffin said. “The weight of expectation was not something we dealt with well. We never had chemistry issues, which I thought was classic, frankly.”

That presumption was heightened by a series of James tweets in early March that left observers wondering if the two-time NBA champion with the Miami Heat was trying to get through to his Cavs teammates.

“It’s this simple. U can’t accomplish the dream if everyone isn’t dreaming the same thing everyday. Nightmares follow,” he said on March 6. “The ultimate level of chemistry is when you know what I’m thinking without saying a word and we execute it. Visa Versa,” he wrote on March 5. “It’s ok to know you’ve made a mistake. Cause we all do at times. Just be ready to live with whatever that comes with it and be with ... those who will protect you at all cost!” he tweeted on March 1.

No one knows what the messages mean.

“The tweets, well, everybody is like, ‘LeBron’s being passive-aggressive.’ LeBron James isn’t passive-aggressive, he’s aggressive-aggressive,” Griffin said. “You know exactly where he stands as a teammate and a leader. Nobody on our team thought those tweets were directed at him. Nobody on our team took that in a negative way. But because the world at large isn’t in our locker room, they think, well, that would really bother them. I don’t care what you think if you’re not in that room.

“LeBron enjoys and thrives in controversy and he really is comfortable in that space. I think he’s always going to parry with the media. I think he’s going to enjoy that throughout his career. It had no bearing on our locker room.”

Griffin saw those tweets from James differently than the “fit in, fit out” one during the 2014-15 season that James directed at Kevin Love.

“When LeBron went at Kevin last year, it was a language that everyone knew was directed at Kevin, including Kevin. It wasn’t a situation where he’s hiding anything,” Griffin said.

Griffin downplayed James’ self-generated controversy and said all are motivated daily to help James fulfill his self-appointed mission of delivering Cleveland a championship, last won by the Browns in 1964.

But Griffin acknowledged that locker room additions in 2016 have helped. He called the arrival of 10-year veteran Channing Frye in a Feb. 18 trade with the Orlando Magic “a breath of fresh air.”

“He’s been a huge, huge plus,” Griffin said of Frye. “We needed someone who was truly joyful to be part of the process to remind everybody how blessed we are to be together.”

Griffin said the April 13 free-agent signing of 12-year veteran Dahntay Jones was good for the bench. He joined James Jones, a respected leader alongside James in Miami who is known to the Cavs as “Champ.”

“James Jones is as good a locker room leader as you could ever have. He’s special,” Griffin said.

“I think the negativity around our team, everybody wanted to believe there was some great story to uncover because we weren’t Golden State or San Antonio. The reality was we just hadn’t found a way to click yet. That’s not nearly as interesting a story as turmoil in the locker room. That’s what people want to publish.”

Marla Ridenour can be reached at mridenour@thebeaconjournal.com. Read her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.