David Blatt
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (No. 23) holds back Cavaliers head coach David Blatt as he reacts to a call during the second quarter against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center. Phoenix won 107-100. Reuters/Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James drew criticism on social media Tuesday night after he appeared to shove head coach David Blatt away from an argument with referees. Critics pointed to the incident as the latest example of rumored turmoil within the Cavaliers locker room.

But both James and Blatt downplayed the incident while speaking with reporters after Cleveland’s 107-100 loss to the Phoenix Suns. James said he was merely trying to remove Blatt from the situation before he could receive a technical foul.

“I got called for an offensive foul, and they said I hooked one of the Morris twins on a post-up when he grabbed me,” James told reporters after the game, according to ESPN. “It was a referee that was away from the play. I was talking to Eric Lewis, one of the other refs, and Coach Blatt was getting a little fired up about it, too, and he was on his way to a technical. So I just got him up out of the way before he got a T. So, just protecting my coach.”

The incident occurred during the game’s second quarter, when James was called for an offensive foul on Suns forward Marcus Morris. Blatt took umbrage with the call and engaged in a heated argument with an official, prompting James to intervene.

“He was trying to keep me from getting a technical foul … Look, it’s a physical game, and no disrespect to the official, but I just thought my guy was taking a lot of hard hits and I didn’t like it and I was expressing my opinion, and LeBron stepped in to I guess protect me in that situation, which is more than fine. But what I really wanted to do was protect him,” Blatt said.

James recorded 33 points, seven rebounds and five assists in the loss -- his first appearance since sitting out for two weeks to recover from nagging back and knee injuries. The Cavaliers fell to 19-20 on the season.

James’ “shove” of Blatt inflamed speculation that Cavaliers players haven’t fully accepted the first-year coach as their leader. Assistant head coach Tyronn Lue has reportedly called timeouts without consulting Blatt, while players have appeared to ignore his play calls, ESPN insider Brian Windhorst notes. Rumors of unrest reached such levels this month that Cavaliers general manager David Griffin made a statement affirming that Blatt would remain the team’s head coach.

“This narrative of our coaching situation is truly ridiculous,” Griffin said. “It’s a non-story, it’s a non-narrative. Coach Blatt is our coach, he’s going to remain our coach. Coach Blatt is our coach, he’s going to remain our coach. Do not write that as a vote of confidence. He never needed one. It was never a question. So don’t write it that way.”