Moments after the Eastern Conference championship banner was raised by the Cavaliers for the third straight time and the obligatory postgame interviews ended, Tyronn Lue slipped quietly away.
Cleveland’s coach ducked into the shadows, his preferred location.
“I don’t like the attention,” he said.
But Lue, once a journeyman point guard who steered the Cavs to an NBA championship last season, has grown more accepting of his frontman role. He’ll again be at center stage this week as Cleveland meets Golden State in the third installment of their title trilogy.
If the unassuming, easygoing Lue had his preference, the teams would duke it out for the Larry O’Brien Trophy on a playground court in a stifling hot gymnasium, with only a handful of onlookers present. A student of the game, he’s old school with a fresh perspective.
Of the many juicy subplots between the Cavs and Warriors, one that frequently goes overlooked is Lue, the former assistant who has blossomed in no time into one of the league’s brightest young head coaches and a playoff savant.
He’s 28-6 in two postseasons with Cleveland. His players credit Lue’s soothing, steady influence _ on and off the floor _ as nearly as vital to their success as a clutch Kyrie Irving 3-pointer.
“It’s just his level of calmness no matter what’s going on,” LeBron James said following practice. “He always talks about, at the end of the day, he’s already won in life, so whatever else happens after this is extra credit. And I feel the same way. That’s why I relate to him so much. Lose here, or you win a game here, it’s like, `All right, cool. I’ve already done so much more than anybody ever gave me credit of doing or thought I can do, so there’s no reason to get too high or too low.’
“So it’s the even-keel mentality about our coach and it definitely helps us as players when we’re going out into a war.”
Lue has been preparing for the biggest battle of his basketball career this week.
From the moment he returned home from Boston following the Cavs’ win in Game 5 of the conference finals, Lue has immersed himself in the Warriors, a virtual All-Star team featuring two league MVPs (Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry), a dead-eye shooter (Klay Thompson) and a triple-threat performer (Draymond Green).
Lue’s defensive strategy to this point in the playoffs has been to neutralize the opponents’ top player. The Cavs were able to do that with Indiana’s Paul George, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan and Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, who aggravated a hip injury in Game 2 and missed the remainder of the series. Cleveland blitzed, double-teamed and did all it could take away the other team’s offensive threat.
Lue was asked if it’s more difficult to identify who that is on Golden State.
“Hell yeah,” he said, his voice rising. “It’s tough.”
There are few weaknesses in these Warriors, the first team to head into the final round 12-0 and winning by an average of 16.3 points per game.
“They have so many weapons,” Lue said, “having four All-Stars and now adding KD to the mix who I’ve always loved as a scorer, just how he scores so easy. They have a lot of options. It’s going to be tough, but we have to lock into what we have to do defensively, and sometimes you can play great defense and it doesn’t work. Steph is making tough shots, Klay is making tough shots and KD is making tough shots. But all you can do is play your defense, stick to your principles and just make it as tough as possible.”
The Cavs know Lue won’t panic.
He stayed cool last spring when Cleveland fought back from a 3-1 deficit to win its first title. Lue made subtle tweaks to his rotation, drew up key inbounds plays, then isolated Irving late in Game 7 on Curry. The Cavs All-Star guard made his now famous go-ahead, step-back 3-pointer.
Pressure intensifies in the postseason, when possessions, turnovers and rebounds are magnified.
As the drama builds, Lue stays composed, setting the tone for his players.
“Throughout the postseason there’s so many different emotions,” James said. “Going high, going low. And if you’re a coach able to just stay even-keeled throughout the whole thing, it relaxes the rest of the group.”
Don’t be fooled by Lue’s cool. He can get fiery when needed.
“I always get mad when guys make shots in the first quarter, second quarter, pumping their chest and then the game on the line they miss,” Lue said. “So you’re doing all that for no reason. I always like to stay even-keeled and just play the game the right way.”