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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. Batum stood with his hands over his head and his mouth agape after Kennard buried a 3 while being fouled for a go-ahead four-point play with 1.9 seconds left. 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 a fan. No, for real, I was a fan for the last 15 seconds. I wasn’t playing, like everybody else in the stands.”
Sure, there are nights like Friday when they fall behind by 41 and lose by 29 to Utah. But just two postseasons ago, the Clippers couldn’t hold on to double-digit leads in a 3-1 series meltdown against Denver in the second round playing in the bubble. 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. That is usually a death sentence for a team’s playoff hopes and yet the Clippers turned a season to forget into one which they’ve already made history and are 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. The former Cleveland coach, though, is not only showing what he can do without James, but also managing without his two Clippers superstars 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. So that don’t mean you’re automatically going to win because you have LeBron James. So I do coach with a chip on my shoulder because, like people say, ‘Oh, he can’t 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 pulled out of negotiations and the Lakers hired Frank Vogel.
“The Lakers [saw it] more so as like [I’m just] coming to coach LeBron,” Lue said. “No, I’m coming to win. I just didn’t think I was treated fairly. And I wasn’t just going to accept any offer just to 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 me want to be better because not having LeBron, now I got to show people that I know my stuff. Like I can really coach. And I still got to get a lot better.
“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 than the [craps table] dealers and the pit bosses who are adding and subtracting what they should be paying out. … A lot of times, a number will hit and you can see the dealer back there trying to calculate what it is that they’re supposed to pay him. He’ll be like, ‘$350 on that one, $750 on that one.’
“It’s really incredible to watch. That’s 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’s a tight player, a loose player, if he bluffs. In basketball, you’re playing a coach. Like what he does, what his tendencies are. Is he switching one through five? Does he blitz?”
In the rematch two nights later, Lue starts his 7-foot big on Doncic. The bold strategy is to catch the Mavericks by surprise and not allow them to run their offense seeking out mismatches and playing off those actions.
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.
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. And no matter how big the deficit, Clippers players tell each other they are still in the game even if it actually sounds ridiculous to them.
“[Even when] we’re down 35, we’re coming to the timeout and guys are like, ‘Oh, yeah. We’re still in it,'” Jackson says.
“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 all of last season determined to bury the bubble.
The Clippers wanted nothing to do with the bubble. There was nowhere to go, no escape from each other or their opponents. George admitted to falling into a state of 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,” Morris says. “[If] we weren’t in the bubble, we’d beat the s— out of them. Put that on the record. … Guys are out of 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. Players have lauded Lue’s adjustments and game plans, nicknaming him “Belichick” while singling out his ability to communicate and empower them to take more ownership. He holds them accountable like when he confronted the team in a meeting last season that Jackson said turned the year around.
“He said, ‘I got my contract. It’s on you guys. Do you want to play? If not, s–, let me go home and we’ll figure out next year,'” Jackson recalls. “‘I want to coach but it all depends on if you want to play. That’s on 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. The Clippers had lost six of eight after George was ruled out indefinitely. 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 fall into feeling sorry for ourselves. Don’t nobody [outside] care that Kawhi and PG’s hurt.
“When you build a system around your best two players, a lot of stuff we can’t run anymore. I had to look at the mirror myself and just figure out what’s 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 to get back out there, man.”
The Clippers had just acquired Powell and Robert Covington, two more wings, before the trade deadline. The idea of what Powell can do with Leonard and George had Lue envisioning a possible five-man unit of all interchangeable wings who can switch defensively.
Leonard, George, Powell, Batum and Morris. Maybe even Covington, who will be a free agent this summer. The potential defensively is enough to make Clippers dream about the “silly” — as Batum put it — combinations next season, when the Clippers are expected to be preseason title favorites with a healthy Leonard, George and the addition of Powell.
“All the time,” Lue says when asked how much he thinks about a healthy Clippers roster. “We’ll get to that point where we’ll be able to play that way [small, switching and interchangeable] and we’ll be a dangerous team.”
Since taking over for Rivers, Lue hasn’t been able to play the way he envisions for a long stretch. The Mavs and the Jazz got a little taste of what Lue wants to do when the Clippers went small in the playoffs before Leonard tore his ACL in 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. “And they’ll be like, ‘Ty, you a bad mother.’ They see what we’re working with and how competitive.”
“For PG and Kawhi, it just strengthens their belief in him and reinforces how good of a coach he is. I think it makes them go, ‘Man, if he can get this out of this team with us not being here, I can only imagine what it’s going to be like when we’re back at full strength and healthy.'”