AFTER DELIVERING A triple-double in the series opener, Luka Doncic put down 39 points in Game 2 to silence a half-capacity Staples Center crowd and hammer a refrain: The LA Clippers had no answer.
As the Dallas Mavericks packed a 2-0 lead into their bags to return home, Clippers players lingered in the locker room for an hour and a half. One by one, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Rajon Rondo, Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka, Marcus Morris Sr. and others, all took turns talking basketball, figuring out how to keep the season alive. Instead of pointing fingers, the players started identifying solutions, even watching film to discuss what needed to be done to beat Dallas.
“Everybody had something to say for the good of the team,” Batum says. “We just talked like, ‘OK, it’s not over yet. We still can do it.’
“There was no panic.”
Three days later, panic tried to set in again. The Mavericks charged out to a 30-11 lead in the opening minutes of Game 3, and a franchise that had melted down in the playoffs in recent years looked on the verge of being bounced before it had a chance to get started.
In the middle of the most hostile crowd the Clippers had faced all season, head coach Ty Lue maintained his composure — even as Doncic picked apart LA’s defensive switching strategy.
The Clippers ultimately won that night — Lue went small, swapping Ivica Zubac for Batum — and then the series in seven grueling games. They would fall behind 2-0 again in the second round to the Utah Jazz, lose their All-NBA star Leonard to a right knee sprain in Game 4 and close out the series in six with Terance Mann starting in a lineup that gave Rudy Gobert fits.
After blowing a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets last season, LA showed a kind of fight and mental toughness that was not there in the bubble. Leonard had made it clear that the team needed to get smarter. After firing Doc Rivers, the franchise hired Lue, a coach already up to speed with the concerns Leonard expressed, a coach who had helped LeBron James snap a 50-year championship drought in Cleveland.
After a heartbreaking Phoenix Suns game-winner on Tuesday night — the Clippers look for inspiration again down 2-0 for the third straight time in the postseason.
“T-Lue,” George said when asked how the Clippers reached their first Western Conference finals.
“T-Lue. Adjustments after adjustments. Got to give most of the credit to him.”
DEFENSE IS WHAT wakes him at night. Like most people, Lue keeps his phone by his bed, and the notes folder fills with switching schemes whenever he’s stirred awake. The volume of ideas is one of the reasons why Lue maintains an extensive playbook — many with plays he doesn’t reveal until the playoffs.
Former Cavaliers general manager David Griffin thinks their regular-season record would have been better every season — Cleveland respectively won 51 and 50 games in Lue’s first full seasons as head coach — if Lue hadn’t held back. Griffin recalls one instance when the Cavs were being carved up playing a certain defensive set.
“What are you doing?” the then-Cavs GM asked Lue.
“I know how I’m going to adjust,” Griffin recalls Lue responding. “Do you want me to do it now and let them have a head start for the playoffs, or do you want me to do it when the playoffs start?”
“He was playing chess the whole time,” the New Orleans Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations says.
Richard Jefferson enjoyed watching the mental chess matches during Cavaliers’ practices between Lue and LeBron James. James’ ability to recall plays and game situations is legendary, and the superstar often tested the first-time coach.
“Bron will look at T-Lue and say, ‘What will we do when they go with this sub?'” Jefferson recalls. “And T-Lue was like, ‘Oh, you’re talking about like in the third quarter when they want to go small with [Kelly] Olynyk and then I will just play Channing [Frye]. And if they do this,’ blah, blah, blah. And LeBron will look at him and nod his head.”
“Everyone talks about Bron’s IQ and T-Lue can [always answer him],” Jefferson says. “T-Lue has his respect.”
The 6-foot former point guard understands how to manage egos and personalities. Lue played alongside Michael Jordan in Washington and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in Los Angeles. But he also knows when to take the gloves off, like when he pushed James and the Cavaliers to become the first to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals and beat the Golden State Warriors to win the title in 2016.
At halftime of that Game 7, Lue famously called out James, pleading with his superstar to give more.
“I wanted to bruise him that night,” Lue recalls. “It was like maybe 2:20 in the second quarter, he came to the bench and had his legs folded and he was filing his nails and s—.
“So I came into the locker room, ‘Bron! What the f— you doing?! You gotta be better! What the f— are you doing?! Guard Draymond! Stop turning the ball over! Be aggressive! Take your shots! You got to be f—ing better!”’
“He was bulls—ing though. He was being too passive.”
This season, the Clippers have repeatedly singled out Lue’s touch, how the head coach relates to them, how he relays his message to them and holds them accountable. Lue doesn’t pull any punches but also does it in a manner that doesn’t leave them bruised.
“That takes some f—ing balls,” Jefferson said of Lue calling out James in that Game 7. “And that takes some f—ing confidence. Not many motherf—er got that s—.”
Having spent a season around Leonard and George as Rivers’ top lieutenant and then this season as head coach, Lue says he knows how and when to challenge his two stars. Their personalities are not only different from James but different from one another. And that means his approach to them has to vary as well.
“Kawhi and PG are different,” Lue says. “With PG, you have to be positive with him more. More positivity. That is how he responds better. Kawhi, you can do either way. You can call him out or you can be positive with him. You got to understand that as a coach, how to deal with each player differently.
“Everybody is not the same.”
WHEN LUE INTERVIEWED to be the lead assistant in Cleveland under David Blatt, he was given a playoff scenario: Coming out of a timeout, the team needs a 3 to win or a 2 to tie with seven seconds left in the game. Lue countered with questions. Where did the ball go out of bounds on the prior play? Who were the officials on the floor? Who is the opposing coach in that scenario? He needed to know every detail.
“I only get the chance to do this once,” Lue said.
When Lue interviewed for the Clippers job, he had a vision of how he wanted them to play offensively and defensively.
“We can’t do what my intention was coming into the season, like offensively how I wanted to play yet,” Lue says. “But we found a way to adapt and adjust all season long.”
“I had to change my coaching style as well,” Lue adds. “Just to kind of fit to these guys with my style and their style together and try to play from there.”
He won’t go into detail but says the Clippers have had to course-correct this season due to injuries to key players like Ibaka and Beverley and mid-season additions like Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins.
“But I think next season, getting started in training camp, like we really got to focus on a different style,” Lue says. “Just having different styles of play, whether you are playing Utah, Dallas, the Lakers, whoever, you got to be able to go in your bag and play different ways.”
Until then, the Clippers continue to try to figure out what they can do in these playoffs, countering every deficit one Lue adjustment at a time.
“We crack jokes,” Beverley said after the Game 2 loss in Phoenix. “We called T-Lue ‘Bill Belichick’ with all the adjustments he makes.
“He’s definitely going to find a way.”