Once again, the Los Angeles Clippers faced a double-digit deficit that seemed too much to overcome. Once again, the Clippers proved otherwise.
By prevailing in Game 6 of their second-round series against the Utah Jazz after fighting off a 25-point deficit, the Clippers became the first team in NBA history to overcome a 0-2 series deficit in consecutive series. With the Clippers facing the Phoenix Suns beginning Sunday in the franchise’s first ever Western Conference finals, the Clippers have attributed the team’s resiliency to head coach Tyronn Lue.
“T-Lue has made adjustments after adjustments,” Clippers star Paul George said. “I got to give most of the credit to him and the guys just doing whatever it takes.”
The Clippers had no other choice. They have missed All-Star Kawhi Leonard in Games 5 and 6 against Utah because of a sprained right knee. Leonard did not travel with the team to Phoenix and is expected to miss Games 1 and 2 in Phoenix.
Not only has George elevated his game during Leonard’s absence, so have a handful of role players, including Terance Mann, Reggie Jackson, Nicolas Batum, Marcus Morris Sr. and Luke Kennard. Those players have said they felt prepared partly because of Lue’s demeanor through both good and bad games.
“He always finds a way to talk to us so we don’t panic,” Batum said. “I love that coach. You have to give him credit. T-Lue is an amazing coach.”
Not that this surprises the Clippers.
After squandering a 3-1 second-round series lead to the Denver Nuggets last season, the Clippers parted ways with Doc Rivers because they felt his strong voice, experience and ability to handle personalities could not overcome how he mismanaged rotations and adjustments. Though they had an exhaustive coaching search, the Clippers promoted Lue after he spent one season as an assistant in L.A. Shortly after his hiring, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer called Lue “the best coach in the NBA” considering he coached the Cleveland Cavaliers when they won the 2016 NBA title and appeared in four consecutive Finals.
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No pressure, but the Clippers have expected the same thing since acquiring Leonard and George two years ago.
“I’m big on pressure,” Lue said. “If you don’t have pressure, that means you don’t have a chance at winning a championship. When you talk about pressure, that means you’re in a situation to win. That’s what I want to do. I want to be one of the greatest coaches. In order to be great, you have to win.”
Clippers players have lauded Tyronn Lue’s even-keeled demeanor in huddles and in the locker room.
Lue experienced that in Cleveland after the Cavaliers also elevated Lue as an assistant to head coach David Blatt under unique circumstances. Cleveland fired Blatt midway through the 2015-16 season despite making the NBA Finals the previous season and starting off his second year with a 30-11 record. The Cavaliers made the move because it believed players would respect Lue more because of his past experience as an NBA player.
“To come in midway through the season when we were playing pretty good basketball, and then to hire me, it was a tough situation,” Lue said. “To be thrown in the fire where you have to absolutely win a championship at that point? Those are tough things to face.”
That is because Lue sensed the Cavaliers would consider it “failure” if they did not at least return to the Finals, let alone win an NBA title. Lue also did not have a training camp to ease the transition. Hence, Lue said he dealt with “a lot of stress.”
It helped, though, that Lue had a star-laden team that included LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. After playing for the NBA’s winningest coach (former Lakers coach Phil Jackson) and playing with a demanding superstar (former Lakers player Kobe Bryant), Lue had a window into how a coach can hold star players accountable in practices, film sessions and games. After the Clippers overcame a 3-1 Finals series deficit to Golden State in 2016, James credited Lue for critiquing his first-half performance in Game 7.
“We didn’t have LeBron go down like Kawhi went down, so we didn’t have that issue,” Lue said. “It’s just totally different. In Cleveland, we really leaned on our veteran guys a lot more.”
As coach in Cleveland, Tyronn Lue helped lead the Cavaliers back from a 3-1 series deficit to win the 2016 NBA championship.
The good times did not last when James left for the Lakers three years ago. Then, the Cavs fired Lue following a 0-6 start in the 2018-19 season. Though he spent some of that time improving his sleeping and diet to lose 35 points, Lue frequently consulted with his mentors, watched game footage and drew up plays. .
“I really don’t get on guys that much,” Lue said. “A lot of those guys will be themselves and I allow them to play. I think when we are getting out-toughed or getting out-worked, that’s when I get upset.”
To ensure that players don’t get upset, Lue has talked directly with players over diminished roles. Throughout the postseason, key veterans (Rajon Rondo, Patrick Beverley) and a young center (Ivica Zubac) have had fluctuating playing time, while Lue has fluctuated with big or small-ball lineups. Lue has also increased ball-handling responsibilities for Leonard and George compared to last season in hopes of fostering more team chemistry and making his star players even more versatile.
Throughout the Clippers’ playoff series against Dallas and Utah, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, Jazz coach Quin Snyder and Clippers players all praised Lue for his in-game adjustments while convincing players to accept the changes.
“I give our coaching staff a lot of credit. They have done a great job and our players have done a great job of adjusting,” Lue said. “So it’s not just me. Our coaching staff have a lot of great suggestions. Then we just try to put it together and try to execute it.”
The Clippers have not always executed it well. They fell to a No. 4 seed and appeared on the verge of another disappointing postseason after falling 0-2 both to Dallas and Utah. Yet, the Clippers have kept their championship hopes alive partly because of their first-year head coach.
“T-Lue is a pretty even-keel dude,” George said. “He’s split right down the middle, never up, never down. And so we take his identity throughout the game.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: After helping LeBron James, Tyronn Lue aims to push Clippers to title run