Ty Lue is ready to emerge from LeBron’s shadow
Mar 22, 2022
Ohm YoungmisukESPN Staff Writer
- Ohm Youngmisuk has covered the Giants, Jets and the NFL since 2006. He covered the Nets, Knicks, and NBA for almost a decade before joining ESPNNewYork.com. He joined ESPNNewYork.com after working at the New York Daily News for almost 12 years and is a graduate of Michigan State University.
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NOT LONG AFTER Tyronn Lue had been doused with cold water by his team after matching the second-largest NBA comeback since 1996, his cellphone was ringing.
On the other end, Lue heard a familiar, distinct and drawn voice.
“So you just going to keep getting down 25, come back and win, huh?” Lue says in his best Kawhi Leonard impression.
Lue has been annoyed that the LA Clippers repeatedly dig themselves into big holes this season. But as Reggie Jackson joked at halftime not long after they fell behind by 35 points in Washington on Jan. 25: the Clippers had the Wizards right where they wanted them.
For much of their existence, the Clippers have long been the punchline. But since last postseason, they’ve developed a stubborn habit of pulling off improbable comebacks — none bigger deficit-wise than erasing that 35-point deficit to stun the Wizards 116-115 — only trailing Utah Jazz‘s 36-point come-from-behind win over the Denver Nuggets on Nov. 27, 1996.
As Luke Kennard scored seven points in the final nine seconds, Nic Batum couldn’t process what was happening. After Kennard fouled for a four-point play, Batum was standing with his hands crossed over his head and his mouth open. That put the finishing touches on a shocker that saw the Clippers dig themselves out of a 66-31 first-half hole.
“That’s one of those moments in the NBA, you have to be in it,” Batum says. “I was like an avid fan. No, for real, I was a fan for the last 15 seconds. I wasn’t there, as everyone else. “
Sure, there are nights like Friday when they fall behind by 41 and lose by 29 to Utah. Two postseasons ago, Clippers couldn’t hold onto double-digit leads against Denver in a 3-1 series defeat. Since then, they’ve overcome a near 0-3 hole against Dallas before winning in seven games and stunned Utah by erasing a 25-point deficit without Leonard in Game 6 to advance to the franchise’s first Western Conference finals.
Prior to this season, no team in the past 25 years had erased a deficit of 24-plus points and won three times in a single season. And the Clippers did it three times over an eight-game stretch, stunning the Nuggets, the Philadelphia 76ers and Wizards during that span. Over the past two seasons, the Clippers lead the league in comeback wins after trailing by 20 or more with five victories, four of which came this season.
Their biggest comeback, though, is nearly complete. The Clippers entered the season without Leonard, who is recovering from an ACL injury, and have been without Paul George (torn elbow ligament) since Dec. 22. They lost newly acquired Norman Powell (broken bone in foot) after only three February games. This is often a death sentence for a team’s playoff hopes. But the Clippers turned a season that was disappointing into one of greatness. They are now on track to reach the play in tournament as the No. 8 seed.
A lot of this resiliency has to do with the man many in the organization consider to be the team’s third star — Lue.
But Jackson is quick to correct.
“He is the star. “
FOURTEEN DAYS BEFORE their unbelievable comeback in D.C., the Clippers trailed 59-34 with over 19 minutes left in their game against the Nuggets on Jan. 11.
As has often been the case without George and Leonard, the Clippers were struggling to score and looking like they were on their way to another tough loss at the hands of reigning MVP Nikola Jokic.
But whenever the Clippers fall behind big, Lue begins their comebacks by figuring out the best combination of players who will defend and exploit an opponent’s weakness. While he relies on some of his vets, Lue has often succeeded with young unproven players such as two-way forward Amir Coffey, who plays the entire second half.
Lue also employs a tactic that helped the Clippers thrive both offensively and defensively last postseason — he goes small, a risky move against the likes of Jokic. The Clippers turn up the defensive pressure and force 10 second-half turnovers while keeping the Nuggets from getting the ball to Jokic, who finishes with 21 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists, but just six points on seven shots in the fourth quarter of an 87-85 Clippers’ win.
Former Cavaliers forward Richard Jefferson says Lue’s basketball acumen and his ability to counter what an opponent is doing on the fly is on the same level as LeBron James‘ brilliant brain. However, the former Cleveland coach is showing how he can manage without James and his Clippers stars this season.
Despite winning a championship and helping guide the Cavs to the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history by erasing a 3-1 deficit to beat Golden State in 2016, Lue doesn’t get a lot of credit for the title that many instead will remember as James willing a championship to Cleveland.
Lue is quick to call James “the best player in the world” who made him a better coach. But as Miami‘s Erik Spoelstra knows, it can take a long time for a coach to emerge from James’ shadow.
“LeBron’s been in the league, what, 18 years?” Lue says. “He won four championships. LeBron James doesn’t automatically guarantee you win. I coach with a chip on mine because, as people say, “Oh, he cannot do it without LeBron.” He can’t …'”
Lue had an opportunity to reunite with James when the Lakers interviewed him for the coaching job in 2019. But the Lakers offered Lue a three-year deal worth $18 million, far below the five-year, $35-million deal he had with the Cavs, and wanted to dictate Lue’s staff. Lue resigned and Frank Vogel was hired by the Lakers.
“The Lakers [saw it] more so as like [I’m just] coming to coach LeBron,” Lue said. “No, I’m coming here to win. I didn’t believe I was being treated fairly. I didn’t accept any job offer to just get a job.
“I just thought I was better than that. “
While the Lakers have played far below their championship expectations despite having multiple future Hall of Famers, Lue has the Clippers ahead of his L.A. rivals despite playing six regulars who are 25 or younger and have yet to make an All-Star appearance.
“The job I’ve been able to do with the team now, like, Spo was the same way in Miami,” Lue says of emerging out of James’ shadow. “It’s also made it easier for me to be better, not having LeBron. Now I can show people that my stuff is good. I feel like I can coach. I’m still learning.
“But I just want to prove to people that I can coach. “
WHETHER HE IS playing a card game of Bourre on the team plane or throwing dice at a packed craps table in Las Vegas, Lue’s brain is calculating all the scenarios, studying his opponent’s tendencies, identifying weaknesses and adjusting to find any way to win.
“In the middle of all that chaos is Ty at his best,” says Clippers assistant coach Brian Shaw, who has known Lue since the two were teammates with the Lakers in 1999. “He’s better then the [craps table] dealers or the pit bosses that are adding and subtracting from what they should be paying. You can often see the dealer trying to figure out what he should be paid. He’ll be like, ‘$350 on that one, $750 on that one. ‘
“It’s really incredible to watch. This is how his mind works. “
During a February two-game stand in Dallas, Lue had his poker face on. In the first game against the team the Clippers have eliminated in the past two first-round meetings, Lue stayed too long with Ivica Zubac switching onto Luka Doncic, who scored a career-high 51 points in a Mavericks’ win. Doncic scored 28 points in the first quarter, drilling seven 3-pointers, many of them step-backs over Zubac like during their first-round matchup last postseason. In 59 half-court matchups between those two, Doncic has 74.6 points per 100 matchups against Zubac, highest against any defensive player this season (minimum 20 matchups) per Second Spectrum.
While Lue admitted he should have adjusted earlier, the Clippers coach also had a defiant tone explaining his strategy.
Lue was ready for his next hand against the Mavericks.
“A lot of times when you’re playing cards, you’re playing a player,” Lue said, explaining how coaching can be similar to playing cards. If he is a tight player, he will be a loose player. You’re a coach in basketball. You can see his tendencies and what he does. Is he switching between one and five? Does he blitzes? “
In the rematch two nights later, Lue starts his 7-foot big on Doncic. The bold strategy is not to let the Mavericks run their offense, seeking out mismatches and playing on those.
Doncic turns back to look at coach Jason Kidd after seeing Zubac served up to him. The scheme might’ve relaxed the Mavs star too much as Doncic scored 22 points in the first three quarters before scoring 23 in the fourth and finishing with 45 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists.
Lue’s gamble just pays off as the Clippers escape with a 99-97 win and the Mavs get a two-game taste again of Lue’s chess moves.
“Mental warfare,” is how a Mavericks source described Lue’s Zubac tactic.
The Clippers go on a remarkable run to come back from being down 25 points and somehow beat the Nuggets in Los Angeles.
IT’S NOT EVEN the midway point of the third quarter and the Clippers are down more than 20 points to an MVP candidate big man again for the second time in 10 days. Despite feeding Joel Embiid a steady diet of double teams, the Sixers star center is feasting on the Clippers on his way to 40 points and 13 rebounds as Philadelphia opens a 68-44 lead with 7: 39 remaining in the third on Jan. 21.
Lue remains calm. Clippers players always tell each other that no matter what the deficit is, they’re still in the game.
“[Even when] we’re down 35, we’re coming to the timeout and guys are like, ‘Oh, yeah. Jackson states, “We’re still in the game.”
“We’re not thinking we got to come back. We’re thinking, ‘Let’s just cut it to the 30. ‘”
With an unheralded small lineup that consists of Kennard, Eric Bledsoe, Terance Mann, rookie Brandon Boston Jr. and backup center Isaiah Hartenstein, the Clippers cut the Sixers’ 24-point lead down to four before Lue eventually turns back to his veteran starters. Embiid scores 11 but only two other Sixers score in the fourth of a 102-101 loss to the Clippers, forcing Doc Rivers, the Clippers’ old coach, to have to answer –and snap at — at a postgame question about how much coaching had to do with the Sixers’ collapse.
Seeing Rivers was a reminder to the Clippers of just how much had changed in 16 months. They spent the entire last season determined to burrow the bubble.
The Clippers wanted nothing to do with the bubble. There was no place to go, and there was no escape from their opponents or each other. George admitted to having fallen into depression. And Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley all left and returned to the bubble for personal reasons, fracturing their already complicated team chemistry.
“Off the court was damn near hell,” Jackson says of the isolation of the bubble.
When faced with a Nuggets team that didn’t quit having overcome a 3-1 series deficit in the first round against Utah, the Clippers folded, blowing leads of 16, 19 and 12 points in their last three losses of the series.
“We only lost that s— because we were in the bubble,” Marcus Morris Sr. says. “[If] if we weren’t in a bubble, we’d beat them all. That’s it. … Guys are not in their comfort zone. Kudos to Denver. “
Leonard said after the fiasco that he wanted to see higher basketball IQ and more resolve when things begin to unravel. Lue’s game plans and adjustments have been praised by the players, who nickname him “Belichick” and praise his ability to communicate with them and give them more ownership. He holds them accountable, as he did last season when he confronted Jackson and asked them to meet. Jackson stated that it turned the year around.
“He said, ‘I got my contract. It’s up to you guys. Are you willing to play? Jackson recalls, “If not, s—-, let me take you home and we’ll figure it out next year.” “I want to coach, but it all depends on whether you want to play. That’s up to you. ‘”
Lue’s message sunk in and Jackson says the Clippers “skyrocketed” in their run to the Western Conference finals.
This season, Lue held another pivotal team meeting. After George was out for indefinitely, the Clippers had lost six of their eight games. After dropping three straight, Lue met with his team before a walk-through prior to facing Atlanta on Jan. 9.
Following the meeting, Lue simplified the offense, let his players play freer and the Clippers won six of their next 10 games, including the comebacks against Denver, Philadelphia and Washington.
“That really changed our season,” Lue told ESPN. “[Told the team] We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. [outside] don’t care about the pain Kawhi and PG are going through.
“When you build a system around your best two players, a lot of stuff we can’t run anymore. I had to look in the mirror and figure out what was best for this team.
“I had to go back to the drawing board. “
WHILE LUE SPENT some of his All-Star break thinking of new wrinkles he could install, Leonard was in Cleveland. In a navy blue blazer that all the legends are wearing at a photo shoot of the NBA’s 76 greatest players, Leonard meets greats such as Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and is asked how he is doing.
“Oh yeah, I’m feeling a lot better,” Leonard says. “I’m trying get back out there man. “
The Clippers had just acquired Powell and Robert Covington, two more wings, before the trade deadline. Lue had an idea for a five-man unit consisting of all interchangeable wings and able to switch defensively.
Leonard, George, Powell, Batum and Morris. Covington could be available this summer as a free agent. Clippers can only dream of the defensive potential that this team has, and they will be able to take advantage of the “silly” combinations next season. With a healthy Leonard, George, and Powell, the Clippers are likely to be preseason champions.
“All the time,” Lue says when asked how much he thinks about a healthy Clippers roster. “We’ll get there [small, switching and interchangeable], and we’ll become a dangerous team. “
Since taking over for Rivers, Lue hasn’t been able to play the way he envisions for a long stretch. The Mavericks and Jazz were able to see a small taste of what Lue wanted to do in the playoffs, before Leonard tore his ACL during Game 4 of the second round.
For now, the Clippers are showing Leonard and George the possibilities of what they will have around them when they return — one impossible comeback at a time.
“They call [Lue] a lot of times, right after the game,” Shaw said of Leonard and George. They’ll be like, “Ty, you’re a bad mother.” They see the results of our work and how competitive we are. “
“For PG and Kawhi, it just strengthens their belief in him and reinforces how good of a coach he is. It makes them think, “Man, if this coach can get this out this team without us being here, I can only picture what it will be like when we are back at our full strength and healthy.” ‘”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.