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Lue proving to be timely game-changer for Cavaliers

Holding everyone accountable, breeding confidence and instilling 'sense of calmness,' rookie coach has franchise four wins from title

POSTED: Jun 1, 2016 12:44 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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With Tyronn Lue, there is 'no special treatment' -- even if you're superstar LeBron James.

— There is an "Accidental Tourist" vibe to the position in which Tyronn Lue finds himself at the moment that doesn't do him or his story justice.

It's true that Lue -- a head coach by trade for only half of this season -- has the Cleveland Cavaliers back in The Finals, just four victories away from their first NBA championship. He thus has a shot to become the latest rookie coach to win the title and to do it against the guy, Steve Kerr, who last spring was the first newbie bench boss to manage that in 33 years.

Lue has at his disposal arguably the league's best overall player in LeBron James, two more from the All-Star tier (Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love) and a deep, versatile roster most coaching lifers can only ogle the way most of us eyeball but never drive Ferraris.

He's a 39-year-old journeyman NBA point guard starting to show his age and the residue of keeping coaches' hours, yet sizing Lue up as some sort of happy bystander to NBA opportunities and success, then, would be a mistake and sell him short. Regardless of how the big moments of his career appear from the outside:

• Lue's first close-up for most sports fans came in The 2001 NBA Finals, when Philadelphia's Allen Iverson famously -- and disdainfully -- stepped over him after hitting a baseline jump in Los Angeles. What the countless YouTube viewings won't tell you about is the work Lue put in dogging Iverson in that series won by the Lakers -- he played 73 of his 131 playoff minutes that postseason in the five games against the Sixers -- or how he served as L.A.'s designated Iverson play-alike in Laker practices in the week leading up to The Finals.

Top Finals Moments: Iverson's Jumper and Step-Over

In Game 1 of the 2001 Finals, Allen Iverson used his crossover against Tyronn Lue, then hit a jumper as Lue fell down. Iverson then took an exaggerated step over the Lue on his way back up the court.

• Lue did have a vagabond playing career: seven teams in 11 years. But consider the connections he made in teammates and coaches, including Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Howard. He played for Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers, Jeff Van Gundy, Doug Collins and Stan Van Gundy. And he became such swell friends with Ryan West of the Lakers staff that he spent time last summer at West's home in California. West's dad, it should be mentioned, is Jerry West, NBA legend and logo.

T-Lue has been great for us as the captain of this ship.

– Cavaliers' LeBron James on Tyronn Lue

• Lue appeared to fall into coaching when Rivers took a shining to his hoops IQ and approach to the game during their brief time in Orlando (Rivers got fired 11 games into the 2003-04 season). But it was Lue's work habits even on other teams that Rivers noticed, and the tests Lue aced after Rivers, by then with Boston, brought him in as a player development coach for the Celtics.

• Lue's rapid rise into and up the Cavaliers' ladder also looks fluky, considering Cleveland made the unusual decision to hire both the top candidate and the runner-up when it looked for a head coach after the 2013-14 season. Lue was hired as David Blatt's associated head coach, given the fattest contract ever for an NBA assistant (four years, $6.5 million) and, like Blatt and the rest of them, had LeBron James drop in their laps when he opted to return from Miami.

Those events seized up on Blatt, who never was given or earned (depending on the telling) James' trust and backing. Lue, by virtue of his playing background, network of friends throughout the league and people skills, had head starts in those areas with his team's biggest star.

So sure enough, after logging an 8-3 mark in just three weeks as a head coach, Lue was coaching the Eastern Conference All-Stars in Toronto. Consider that Jerry Sloan won 1,221 games with Utah and Chicago over 26 seasons, twice took the Jazz to The Finals and never worked the sideline at the All-Star Game.

It seemingly has been that way this spring, Lue merely Forrest Gump-ing his way to achievements and acclaim with the Cavaliers. He got a water shower from the Cleveland players when they got to 10-0 in these playoffs, built from sweeps of the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks and a 2-0 start against the Toronto Raptors. That pushed Lue past Pat Riley (9-0) from most playoff victories without defeat to start an NBA coaching career.

Now it's Lue presiding not just over the Cavs' ambitions but an entire city's hopes for and dreams of a championship -- it's been 51 1/2 years since the Cleveland Browns won the NFL crown -- all because Cavs general manager David Griffin didn't feel the team was enjoying itself enough while winning. Or something like that.

Lue proves his worth in playoffs

There again, that would be selling Lue short. The Cavaliers' dynamic with Blatt had grown toxic, a passive-aggressive hornets' nest where winning "in spite of" rather than "along with" was getting more difficult by the day. And underestimating Lue as an antidote, as simply "LeBron's guy," has looked more foolish with each postseason step the Cavs have taken.

"I told those guys, the first speech I gave when we played the Bulls [the Jan. 23 night Lue took over], 'The game has given me everything,' " Lue told Dave McMenamin, Cavs beat writer for ESPN.com. "And if I had to die on the court, I would die on the court because the game of basketball has given me so much. Without basketball, I wouldn't be me. I don't know where I would be at."

Lue has earned his spurs, made his bones, gained whatever street cred he needs for the hardwood in his brief half season and three rounds so far. His decisions, adjustments and tweaks have yielded mostly positive results, and his interpersonal skills have calmed the Cavs while challenging them to reach higher.

Lue's loyalty to Blatt made him reluctant to slide over the proverbial 18 inches when Griffin initially called in January, and he still hasn't signed the paperwork of his contract as head coach, putting off any formal sense of profiting from his boss' demise. But a move that appeared driven only by James' desire to shed Blatt now looks like a wise and timely franchise game-changer by Griffin.

GameTime: Tyronn Lue

NBA TV's Dennis Scott interviews Cavaliers' head coach Tyronn Lue.

"You never know what would happen any other way, but I think [Lue is] fantastic," team owner Dan Gilbert told Cleveland.com. "It's rare that a guy knows the game and has people skills. You get both with him, like offense and defense almost. He's a special guy."

James, who is sensitive to the idea that he wields power over such decisions in Cleveland and has avoided comparing Blatt and Lue, said during the Atlanta series: "He's always preaching next play, just always next play. We come to a timeout, no matter what's going on in the game, he just continues to breed confidence and talk confidence to us, the unit that's on the floor, the unit that's off the floor. Just a sense of calmness.

"T-Lue has been great for us as the captain of this ship."

Not bad for a kid from Mexico, Mo., a town of fewer than 12,000 residents about 20 miles north of I-70, not quite midway between St. Louis to the east and Kansas City to the west. That's where Lue, along with his brother and his sister, was raised by his mother Kim. Eventually, Lue was sent off to live with Kim's brother Kevin Graves in K.C., and she credits Kevin and his brother Jay with providing a male presence for a kid who might have strayed.

Basketball got Lue from Raytown High to the University of Nebraska, and his all-Big 12 junior year got him drafted by the Denver Nuggets as the 23rd pick overall in 1998. He wound up in Los Angeles as part of a Nick Van Exel trade on draft night. Two years later, Lue got his first championship ring, primarily for riding the Lakers bench and nursing injuries. A year after that, he treated his high school coach, Mark Scanlon, and his wife Jane to a Finals trip, complete with a chauffeur-driven Jaguar and luxury hotel suite.

Back in Mexico, Mo., Lue's friends and neighbors were just happy for his success and grateful for how true he has stayed to the community. After that 2001 championship, Lue hosted a free barbecue at Garfield Park, celebrating with and feeding a crowd estimated at close to 2,000. Last summer, Lue went back to when Walnut Street was renamed Tyronn Lue Boulevard.

When some wondered why a bigger street in Mexico wasn't chosen, Lue said during the ceremony: "To me it is not how big the street is, it is how big the honor is. There couldn't be a better street for me. This is where I grew up, this is where I played basketball everyday by myself and this is where I learned the hard work and dedication I have today."

Folks in Cleveland probably should have named something after Lue last spring after his contribution in Game 4 of the East semis against Chicago. It was Lue who pulled back Blatt when the former coach tried to call a timeout the Cavs no longer had. If not for that victory, giving Cleveland a 3-1 lead to douse Chicago's interest, there might not have been a 2015 Finals for them all.

Now here they are, back again, with Lue firmly in charge after four sudden, not-quite-prepared and roller-coaster months. It has been quite a ride, with Lue like the crew chief of a NASCAR entry, tinkering with the mechanicals of an exquisite machine while orchestrating and navigating the egos and agendas of the car's owners, the pit crew, sponsors and the wheel man. And it's all happening at 200 miles an hour.

Griffin will tell you that Lue hasn't changed a bit in how he relates to any of them, from the bosses and James down to the towel boys. Other staffers still are exhaling from the Blatt era, both astounded that the Cavs survived that tension and relieved that it is gone.

Lue helped clear the air of lingering doubts in a team meeting in late March, fresh from a dismal loss in Brooklyn. He challenged and motivated individuals -- Love told NBA.com recently of how Lue implored him to be aggressive -- aired out any other grievances or concerns they had.

Since then -- and not just for the cameras or social media -- the Cavaliers have show more unity, on the court and off. From their intricate intro rituals to breaking bread as a unit on the road or at teammates' homes.

In regards to the basketball, Lue initiated several changes. He moved Tristan Thompson into the starting lineup, swapping out Timofey Mozgov. He pushed for a faster pace, which culminated in the 3-point inferno that burned down Atlanta in the conference semifinals. He blended trade-deadline acquisition Channing Frye into the mix, in a role that continues to increase. He uses James as the quarterback of a reserve unit to start the second and fourth quarters, drawing more from the other four than you'd expect.

Lue also has held James accountable, same as the others, compared to the apparent favored status he had with Blatt. In huddles, in the locker room, on the practice floor and in film sessions. "I've witnessed Lue face-to-face with LeBron and just making corrections on things," assistant coach Larry Drew told the L.A. Times in the regular season. "And LeBron has responded to it in a positive way. ... There's no special treatment."

Lue's consistency and clarity befits a fellow who was an NBA role player for more than a decade. Blatt, by comparison, came from the European basketball culture where the coach's voice dominates, where one fellow lords over all decisions and methods. The change has taken the Cavaliers from a team of "him and them" to more of a "we." Fair to Blatt or not, that's how the players have responded and that's what matters.

This has not played out without hiccups, of course. Beside the up-and-down first two months, Lue and crew got stood up in Games 3 and 4 at Toronto in the last round. The Raptors closed down the paint, took their chances with Cleveland's 3-point attack and typically played better at home. Lue messed with his rotation and wound up playing James long minutes, even as it threw the second unit out of synch.

But Cleveland rallied when it got back to Quicken Loans Area for a Game 5 thrashing, then polished off Game 6 efficiently, earning itself time to rest and watch Golden State and Oklahoma City battle twice more for the West berth in The Finals.

The East already was decided, with -- big differences from a year ago -- a healthy Cavaliers team this time and a half-season, happy bystander coach in whom the players have absolute confidence.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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