LOS ANGELES - The Los Angeles Clippers have been unflappable amid high stakes throughout these playoffs. They recovered from 0-2 deficits against Dallas and Utah to reach the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
Down 0-2 to the Phoenix Suns, they’ve rallied within a victory of tying the series and forcing Game 7. Much of their resilience can be credited to Tyronn Lue, who is an NBA-best 10-2 in elimination games as a coach.
Lue has described being in the playoffs as his "happy place" and he thrives on the chess match moves required from game to game.
"Sometimes it’s tough because adjustments mean some guys can’t play, some guys play more, and you’ve got to be able to accept that," he said. "It means a lot just for those guys to trust me, to understand that whatever I’m doing is the best for the team, not for me."
Lue lets his players know ahead of time whether they’ll be starting or coming off the bench. He’s quick to hit them up with encouragement via texts and phone calls.
"It’s special, just the relationship I have with T," Paul George said, "and the relationship T-Lue has with every individual on this team in general. It just says a lot about him."
Lue has kept calm throughout the postseason frenzy.
"He always has a chill demeanor," Marcus Morris said. "It’s like having one of my better friends as the head coach. That’s the best thing about him, he’s wide open. He allows you to speak up. That goes a long way with players in this league."
The Clippers’ season is on the line again Wednesday night at Staples Center against the Suns, who lead the series 3-2. Phoenix is a 1-point favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
LA will be without two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who has been out with a right knee sprain. The team also said Tuesday that center Ivica Zubac, who sat out Game 5 because of a MCL sprain in his right knee, is questionable to play.
The Clippers have proved they can win without those two starters, as well as potential starter Serge Ibaka, whose back surgery ended his season. Both of their wins so far have come by 14 points each. Phoenix’s wins have been by a combined 11 points.
"They are one-possession games where they could have went either way," Morris said.
Last year, the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead to Denver in the conference semifinals, with chemistry cited as the main issue. Doc Rivers got fired and Lue was promoted from the bench to the top spot.
It was Rivers who first encouraged a doubtful Lue to aspire to a head coaching job. Rivers is one of some high-profile mentors Lue has had over the years, including Phil Jackson, Scott Skiles and Stan Van Gundy.
After retiring as a player in 2009 having won two NBA titles with the Lakers, Lue started out assisting Rivers in Boston. Lue spent one season with the Clippers before becoming an assistant with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He was elevated to head coach after David Blatt’s firing and as a rookie, Lue guided LeBron James and the Cavs to the 2016 NBA championship. They reached the Finals again the following two years, losing both times to Golden State. Lue was fired after an 0-6 start to the 2019 season.
Lue honed his ability to tell highly paid superstars what they might not want to hear in Cleveland, giving him practice in dealing with Leonard and George during his first season in charge in LA.
"If they are doing too much, I’ll let them know," Lue said of his team. "But I want guys to feel no pressure, just go out there and play their games. That’s what got them to this point. It feels good to hear guys saying positive things (about him), but they are the one with talent that got so far."
SERIES AT A GLANCE
- Game 1: Suns 120, Clippers 114. Final.
- Game 2: Suns 104, Clippers 103. Final.
- Game 3: Clippers 106, Suns 92. Final.
- Game 4: Suns 84, Clippers 80. Final.
- Game 5: Clippers 116, Suns 102. Final.
- Game 6: Suns at Clippers, Wednesday, June 30 | 6 p.m. PT
- Game 7: Clippers at Suns, Friday, July 2 | 6 p.m. PT*
*= If necessary