Why Clippers coach Tyronn Lue becomes an ‘assassin’ during playoffs

Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue talks strategy with players.
Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue talks strategy with forwards Nicolas Batum and Marcus Morris Sr. during a playoff game last season.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The most important day of the Clippers’ 2021 postseason at first looked like anything but a breakthrough.

It looked like a broken television.

Inside a downtown Dallas hotel the morning of May 28, the Clippers gathered to review their two losses to start a best-of-seven, first-round series. Except the film session ended abruptly. Incensed from reading Mavericks star Luka Doncic describe himself as having “fun” while leading Dallas to two wins in Los Angeles, one assistant frustrated by the Clippers’ lack of resistance smacked the screen hard enough to crack it.

The picture remained fuzzy at shoot-around later that morning inside Dallas’ American Airlines Center. Hours before Game 3, players couldn’t get on the same page, forgetting the game plan’s details and direction. Had coaches said to pull in defensively? When exactly should they rotate to help, again?

That night, within the game’s first eight minutes the Clippers trailed by 19 points as the crowd howled while a 3-0 series hole, a second postseason collapse in eight months and an uncertain future loomed.


“We’re in a panic, that’s how you feel,” guard Reggie Jackson said. “… I’m like, I don’t want to say anything but guys, if we lose today every trade, anything — it’s all blown up.”

The Clippers were disappointed they executed late against the Timberwolves on Tuesday, but they are sure they can win their upcoming elimination game.

April 13, 2022

Amid Dallas’ onslaught Tyronn Lue, in his first season as the Clippers’ coach, called two timeouts, his goal to reassure his players as much as draw the perfect set or scheme.

“I think that was huge for our team and it was huge for me just for those guys to see in the moment, how would I handle that situation?” Lue said.

He handled it, Jackson said, by walking in telling a joke.

“And it was like, yo, do you not understand the magnitude of the moment?” Jackson said. “He’s like, ‘Yeah, it’s just basketball.’

“He made sure that we felt confident in the work we’d done all year. It’s more reassuring like damn, you really made us all feel like there was no way we weren’t going to come back.”

It was the Clippers’ clearest view of a 44-year-old coach comfortable amid the crucible of postseason basketball, a volatile, hyper-competitive, high-pressure environment Lue once described as his “happy place.” It is a place the Clippers find themselves again following a play-in tournament loss Tuesday in Minnesota that sets up a win-or-else game Friday against New Orleans. Based on their trust in their coach and his track record, they like their chances.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue talks with Paul George during a break in play.
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue talks with All-Star forward Paul George during a timeout in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals last year.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

In Cleveland, Lue became the third coach in NBA history to appear in three consecutive Finals in his first three seasons, and last season’s Clippers became the first team to rally from 2-0 holes in consecutive playoff series, even after losing star Kawhi Leonard to injury in the conference semifinals.

Players and peers say each run was driven not only by star power, but the way the coach issued challenges, instilled belief, adjusted on the fly and stayed composed.

“In the playoffs,” said Larry Drew, the Clippers assistant who has known Lue since his rookie NBA season in 1998, “he definitely becomes an assassin.”

Channing Frye, the Turner Sports analyst who won a championship in Cleveland, called Lue “the most underrated coach in the league.”

Lue could make a case at being the most confident his team will wriggle out of holes of their own making. When he sat down in huddles during the Dallas series, he said his expression wasn’t a mask to hide his roiling emotions but a reflection of his genuine belief the Clippers were on the verge of a breakthrough, not disaster.

“The thing about me is I’m not afraid to try anything, so I don’t care what people write or what they say because I don’t read it anyway,” Lue said. “The most important thing is whatever it takes for our team to win, that’s what I’m trying to do.


“This time of the season is just about winners and winning and doing whatever it takes to win, and that’s the thing I like the most about the playoffs.”

“If you don’t have tough skin in Mexico you can’t survive.”

— Tyronn Lue, on growing up in small town in Missouri

Once during a summertime visit to Lue’s hometown of Mexico, Mo., one of Lue’s friends since high school, Terry Nooner, heard a friend of Lue’s grandmother talking trash over a game of cards.

The thing about it, Nooner said, was that it wasn’t out of the ordinary.

Mexico is an 11,000-person “trash-talking, confident town of people who think they are the best at everything,” he said. Lue’s childhood played out against a backing track of challenges, one-liners and wisecracks from pick-up games at Garfield Park to family outings.

“If you don’t have tough skin in Mexico you can’t survive,” Lue said.

It’s why he tosses out one-liners to coaches, players and reporters, and the reason he has never let what others think of him influence his decisions. Like when he dominated following a move to a Kansas City suburb after hearing a friend’s parent doubt his ability to succeed at a larger school. Or when Nebraska’s upperclassmen attempted to boycott their coach while Lue, just a freshman, defied them and kept attending practice.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue talks to up-and-coming players Brandon Boston Jr., left, and Amir Coffey.
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue talks to up-and-coming players Brandon Boston Jr., left, and Amir Coffey during a game against the Suns in Phoenix this season.
(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

When Lue played in Atlanta, Hawks coaches often agreed to play him, as a reserve, in crunch-time moments because “he didn’t shy away from the moment, he lived for the moment,” Drew said. “That’s how he was and he coaches the same way.”

That childhood instilled a fearlessness to trust his instincts. He doesn’t take risks in coaching “to be cute,” he said. If he sees an advantage, and it aligns with his belief and philosophy, he goes all-in.

“If you honestly say that you left everything on the floor as a player, as a coach you did everything you could do to win that series or win that game, and it doesn’t happen then I mean, that’s it,” Lue said. “There’s nothing you can do about it, they were better. That’s kind of how I live my life is the same way.”

He’s going to do what he thinks is best for the team, no matter what. I love that attitude.

— Ivica Zubac, Clippers center

Tom Thibodeau, the New York coach who taught Lue how to analyze defensive film when he broke into coaching, remembers Lue as a “gambler” during his 11-year career as a point guard. Frye likened Lue as a coach to a chess player sacrificing a lesser piece to edge closer to checkmate. On team flights, Clippers players loathe facing Lue in Bourré, the staple of NBA card games, for the same reasons they respond to his coaching — he is difficult to rattle, his next move difficult to read, his enjoyment increasing with the stakes.

Some people take their mind off work by golfing. Lue goes to his Las Vegas home and gambles.


“He knows what you got before you do,” center Ivica Zubac said. “His Bourré game is crazy.”

“I’m the best,” Lue said, and such anticipation and unpredictability have become reliable hallmarks of his coaching.

In 2016, one playoff game after LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love combined for 89 of Cleveland’s 117 points, Lue benched Irving and Love to spark a 26-point comeback to beat Indiana. He once inserted little-used players such as Dahntay Jones and Mo Williams into big moments in the Finals.

Tyronn Lue talks with Cavaliers star LeBron James during an NBA Final game in 2016.
Tyronn Lue talks with Cavaliers star LeBron James during Game 3 of the 2016 NBA Finals.
(Tony Dejak / Associated Press)

During a playoff series against Toronto, Lue used just one offensive play for an entire quarter, Frye recalled, its effectiveness tied to secrecy. Lue had run it once or twice the entire season while working on it during practice, holding it in reserve as a surprise.

“Which was nuts,” Frye said. “They had never really seen it, nor did they have time to prepare.”

Last May, Lue parked starter Patrick Beverley at the end of the bench for much of the first-round series against Dallas when he was ineffective guarding Doncic, only to make Beverley a key piece of their comeback to beat Utah the following round. Zubac, another starter, was dropped at times in favor of smaller lineups against Dallas and Utah.

“He’s going to do what he thinks is best for the team, no matter what, if that means sitting someone for the whole series or one game or whatever, he’s going to do it,” Zubac said. “If it doesn’t work out he tried. I love that attitude. Sometimes it was at the expense of me, and I don’t care.”

In the postseason, when rotations usually shrink, Lue’s mixing and matching led to a dozen Clippers earning key minutes over the course of three series last season.

To Frye, that willingness to change is a sign Lue is “not an ego coach” who tries to fit every roster to one system. To Lue, it’s the only way he knows how to operate.


“The biggest thing for me is I want to win ... for this organization, for Mr. Ballmer and the Clippers”

— Tyronn Lue

Lue left Mexico with more than thick skin. There are the memories of his mother, Kim, as she raised three children, and the saying she and his grandmother, Olivia, used to repeat. Be a giver, not a taker.

“I know what it takes to survive, but it’s moreso about helping other people,” he said. “I always ask myself, would you rather be the person asking, or the person giving?”

Lue helped deliver Cleveland’s first NBA championship, and images from its resulting parade and White House reception hang on his office walls at the Clippers’ practice facility. Now he wants to give the Clippers the same. They are expected to be among the betting favorites to do so in 2023 after Kawhi Leonard’s full return following a knee injury last June.

“The biggest thing for me is I want to win for [Paul George], win for this organization, for Mr. [Steve] Ballmer and the Clippers,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

To get there, he has employed the same tactics he used in Cleveland. That often means issuing challenges, hoping it will instill a fearlessness he knows is not universal.


Lue took note of as Lakers coach Phil Jackson held stars Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal accountable during film sessions during their two championships seasons together. Lue has not cut stars slack as a coach, either. He went at LeBron James during a timeout amid Game 7 of the 2016 Finals, exhorting him for even more effort.

“Sometimes you’ve got to light a fire, sometimes that fire burns the right way, sometimes it doesn’t, but you cannot be afraid to roll the dice and burn that fire,” Drew said. “He has a feel for it that I haven’t seen a lot of coaches have.”

Last May, sensing confusion as the Clippers went to break the huddle and finish shoot-around, Lue ordered it started over.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, left, and forward Marcus Morris Sr. (8) discuss a play.
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, left, and forward Marcus Morris Sr. (8) discuss a play during a break in play.
(Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

When the second session was over, Lue pulled Leonard and George over to another monitor queued up with film clips to show them the game plan had been consistent all along. Now it was about players following it.

“He basically said it’s not about the coaching, it’s not about Xs and Os, it’s about us going out there and playing and defending how we’re supposed to,” forward Marcus Morris Sr. said.


Yet eight months after the Clippers had surrendered a 3-1 lead in the second round, an embarrassing exit that led to Doc Rivers’ ouster and Lue’s promotion, Lue wanted to know something more elemental before Game 3 in Dallas.

“The biggest thing is, do you believe we can win?” Lue said. “If you don’t let’s just go home now.”

He acknowledged the significant pressure on the team at the moment. He said, “if I lived in the past I wouldn’t be here. What happened in the bubble and whatever, it is what it is. You can’t go back and change that. All you can do now is stay in the moment now and do something special here and so I give credit to the guys.

“They locked in, they believed in what we were doing and then we were able to execute it.”

“There’s a constant will to push through tough times, push through bad times and not succumb.”

— Larry Drew, Clippers assistant coach regarding Tyronn Lue

Sometimes as late as 2:30 a.m., Clippers assistants have become used to the ping of their phones.

The messages are from Lue, a night owl who prepares better amid the late-night quiet. He works sometimes until 4 a.m.


In June 2016, after the Cavaliers had fallen behind 2-0 during the Finals, it was the ring of a buzzer in Drew’s high-rise Cleveland apartment that startled him around 9 p.m. Lue was at the front desk.

“He says, ‘Hey, let’s go take a walk,’” Drew said. “We went walking in downtown Cleveland on a beautiful night. We just went walking for about three hours. I got back and my shirt was just drenched.”

“Do you see anything we can do?” Lue asked Drew. “Is there anything that I’m doing wrong?”

Tyronn Lue, with friend and assistant coach Larry Drew to his right, hoists Eastern Conference trophy after beating Boston.
Tyronn Lue, with friend and assistant coach Larry Drew to his right, hoists Eastern Conference trophy after beating Boston in 2018.
(Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

Lue’s postseason success can obscure what he openly acknowledges: He doesn’t always have the answers or hold the cards. What he will always provide, players say, is belief.

“He’s so confident it’s going to work,” said Jackson, who faced Lue as a first-round opponent in 2016 with Detroit and much prefers being on the same side of the coach voted the best at in-game adjustments last September by NBA general managers.

“Me, I’m scared like, ‘If it doesn’t work, what’s the counter?’ And he’s like, ‘There is no counter. It’s going to work.’ So when you see it happen it’s like oh, snap.”


As he told Drew on their walk, the pressure was on Golden State.

“He made sure that we felt confident in the work we’d done all year,” Jackson said of the Dallas comeback. “It’s more reassuring like, damn, you really made us all feel like there was no way we weren’t going to come back.”

To start Cleveland’s first comeback from a 3-1 deficit in finals history, Lue showed film only after Cavaliers wins, instead of losses, to reinforce positivity than mistakes, recognizing his team could be mentally fragile. The adjustments Lue made, such as no longer switching Golden State’s split cuts, were done to simplify their plan and limit how much his team had to think.

Before the championship trophy ceremony in Oakland, Lue and Drew caught each other’s attention on opposite ends of the stage.

“We just started walking toward each other and we both just lost it,” Drew said. “We hugged, man. He calls me Blue. He’s crying, I’m crying, he goes, ‘Blue you were so right, Blue. You said stay the course, we stayed the course. We stayed the course.’ It was touching. He’s that kind of a coach who just has, there’s a constant will to push through tough times, push through bad times and not succumb. He won’t let his teams do that.”

Tuesday’s loss in Minnesota has turned Friday into the most important day of the Clippers’ season. Their position is unenviable, the difficulty of their road to repeat last season’s run undeniable, the postseason pressure obvious.

As is the source of their belief.

It looks a lot like Lue.