More comfortable in his own skin and confident after postseason, Matthew Dellavedova is anchoring Cavaliers’ improved bench

Before he became a luminary during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ playoff run — the feisty point guard fueled by coffee who stepped in for an injured Kyrie Irving and irritated opponents and fan bases alike — Matthew Dellavedova was an undersized teenager playing for the Australian national team.

The coach of that team was Brett Brown — former assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, current head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers and Dellavedova’s confidant.

Brown, who always believed Dellavedova had the goods to make it in the NBA even in the face of plenty of criticism, twice last week got an up-close look at his pupil who has grown into the anchor of the Cavs’ improved second unit.

“He’s more comfortable in his own skin,” Brown said recently. “The experience that he went through apart from his performance in the Finals, just the embracement that this city gave him, he became in some ways a cult hero type of guy.”

Throughout the postseason, the sellout crowd at Quicken Loans Arena chanted Dellavedova’s name, showing admiration for his non-stop hustle, pesky defense and winning plays, some that didn’t always show up in the box score.

It was that same spirited style that made him the youngest Australian on Brown’s roster at the 2009 FIBA Oceania Championship and eventually sewed up his spot with the Cavs as an undrafted and underappreciated free agent in 2013. It also led to Brown once referring to Delly as a Neanderthal, a term of affection.

“He’s always sort of had that villain type of role, even with Australia,” Brown said. “He’d come in and he’d create some level of a fight at some point during a game and I loved him for that. You could book it. He’d come out of the pack and there will be some type of scuffle. He’s so Australian; he’s very Australian. I say that with tremendous fondness. I think it’s true that he’s getting older and he feels like he belongs and he plays like he belongs. I think that experience in the Finals pushed him to a much higher level from a confidence perspective.”

Brown would know. The two talked throughout the off-season as Dellavedova was recovering from an exhausting series against Golden State. His Game 3 performance, which included 20 points and suffocating defense on Stephen Curry, led to new prominence, as Dellavedova became a fixture at the postgame podium and one of the most talked about members of the star-studded roster.

Dealing with that newfound fame was part of his hectic summer that also included contract negotiations, training with the Boomers and working to improve him game — focusing on his ball-handling and floaters while also trying to get his body ready for another lengthy season. Through it at all, he leaned on his old coach Brown, the guy who first taught Dellavedova the requirements of being an NBA player.

“Everything,” Dellavedova told about the conversations he had with Brown following the Finals loss against the Warriors. “He’s always generous to respond with advice and he’s got a lot of stuff to deal with as a head coach, but it’s nice to know that I can always call him and he’s not going to sugarcoat or blow smoke. He’s someone I trust, he’s done a lot for me and I appreciate his help.”

Dellavedova’s relentless play has always appealed to coaches. Brown beams when Dellavedova’s name is mentioned. Cavs head coach David Blatt can’t always find the words to articulate his admiration.

That’s not always the sentiment on the other side of the court. A bother to his foes, Dellavedova’s style has led to a few on-court scuffles — turning him into public enemy number one.

It happened against Chicago during the Eastern Conference semifinals and then again during the conference finals against Atlanta when he was tagged as a “dirty” player.

“It is not true,” Brown said when asked if he understood the reputation. “He just plays physical and when there is me and you situations it’s going to be me. It’s going to be him. Any 50-50 ball, he’s throwing his body in there. Sometimes it doesn’t look pretty. He competes, he plays physical, he’s not looking to hurt anybody. We all know that LeBron really likes having him as a teammate, just like I love coaching him and his teammates love having him.”

In his third season, Dellavedova has blossomed into more than just a defensive headache. He’s second on the team in assists, averaging 6.1 per game. He’s also third on the team and seventh in the NBA in plus/minus, a statistic Blatt holds in high regard.

“I feel confident,” Dellavedova told me recently about his strong start. “I think you should always be more confident in your game and that comes through putting in the work. I think it was a great experience for me playing in the playoffs last year and working hard in the off-season by playing with the national team. In a different role than I usually play here with the Cavs and have just tried to build on that. I think if you work hard that’s what helps with your confidence.”

Like many on the roster, Dellavedova used the playoff experience as his primary summer teacher.

“What works and doesn’t work and what I have to work on,” Dellavedova said when asked what he learned. “That I can play and make an impact in meaningful games when they’re most competitive.”

Just like last year, Irving’s injury has given Dellavedova a larger role and more minutes. Off-season acquisition Mo Williams has become Cleveland’s starting point guard, leaving Dellavedova as the leader the second unit, a group that has developed its own identity as one of the most reliable in the league.

The backup role suits Dellevadova well. One of the first off the bench, he provides energy, aggression and stability. He’s built incredible chemistry with Tristan Thompson, as evidenced by their nightly alley-oops. Dellavedova is also usually part of the five-man unit used to close games.

Once labeled not talented enough to be in the NBA or reliable enough to be a key component on a title-contending team, Dellavedova has developed into Blatt’s trusted second unit director, something that isn’t surprising when talking to Dellavedova’s former coach.

“I am not,” Brown said recently. “Because I think the ripple effects that you sort of can’t quantify are the reason he is where he’s at. He just brings people together, there is a selflessness to how he plays and there is a complete focus with the team. That’s the Australian thing that you hear me talking about. Your teammates matter and there is a toughness. For him to get out there and get the ball and play amongst his team and show that level of toughness it doesn’t surprise me at all that people are following that.”

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