Lue Credits Rivers’ Tutelage For Knowing When To Push Buttons In Finals
CLEVELAND – Tyronn Lue thought he needed more from the soon-to-be NBA Finals MVP, who’d just helped guide his Cleveland team to a deciding Game 7 in the 2016 NBA Finals.
So, after Draymond Green started getting hot in Game 7, the Cavaliers head coach started pushing LeBron James’ buttons.
“He said, ‘What do you need?” Lue recalled Thursday when asked about the exchange from last year, which Lee Jenkins detailed in a recent Sports Illustrated profile on James. “I said, ‘Shoot the ball. Score the ball. Don’t turn it over. Guard Draymond.’
“It’s all history from there.”
As James went on to finish with a triple-double and the Cavaliers overcame a 3-1 Finals deficit to steal a championship out of the Warriors’ grasp, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers watched with pride as his former assistant, a man who’s like family to Rivers, earned a title in his first season as a head coach.
“It was the first time I was literally emotional when someone else was winning,” Rivers said. “Other than me winning, it’s the best single day I’ve ever had. It was that emotional for me.”
It was also emotional for Lue, who wonders if he’d even have been in that situation – or been able to press arguably the best player in the world the way he did – if not for his mentor’s guidance.
“Doc was the master of knowing how and when to push buttons,” Lue said.
And often, that task got passed down to Lue, who served as an assistant to Rivers in Boston and Los Angeles from 2009-14.
“I was Doc’s bad guy,” Lue said with a grin. “He always said as a head coach, ‘You’ve got to be able to save your bullets for big moments.’”
Not anyone is fit to hold the role as “bad guy” on a coaching staff, according to Rivers. It takes a special type of personality for the difficult position.
“I've had staffs where I just had to be the guy as the head coach to be the deliverer of all the bad news, too, and that's not a great place for a head coach,” Rivers said. “You usually need more guys to deliver all the messages for you.”
Lue fit the criteria by himself, just as Rivers predicted when Lue played a handful of games for him in Orlando. Rivers knew, in that limited time, Lue possessed the rare ability as a teammate to get a point across and be brutally honest, but in a way that didn’t offend and got absorbed.
It was then that Rivers knew Lue was fit to coach, even before Lue realized his talent.
“I was only with him for 10 games,” Rivers said, “and I saw it. I told him, ‘The day you retire, you’re with me,’ because that’s a gift. He has the gift.”
That was affirmed early during their time together in Boston.
Rivers said Lue had a special relationship with the players, trusting Lue with the job of serving as a personal coach for Rajon Rondo, largely to help out offensively.
And when times got tough, it was Lue calming everyone now. In any situation thrown at him, Lue had a knack for handling it.
“I can recall, and I'm not going to go into the names, but we had a crazy fight in the locker room in Boston,” Rivers said. “Everyone was screaming, running around, and Ty was in there just calm as ever and kind of settled it. That's just an art. And that’s Ty.”
Those were traits Lue continued to develop as he went to Cleveland as an associate head coach, and, eventually, as head coach.
Admittedly for both coaches, it was weird the first time they coached against each other. Lue says that hasn’t changed.
“Everything I do is Doc Rivers-driven,” Lue said, a line he also used last year when he first got the job. “To coach against him, knowing that he taught me everything and I studied him so much all those five years, it’s kind of weird.
“It’s kind of like the first time I played for the Lakers and went to the Wizards and came back to the visiting locker room. It doesn’t feel right. It’s a weird feeling. But it also showed that he had belief in me and the confidence in me to be a coach when I didn’t know I could be a coach.”
There’s little doubt about that now. Since earning that job and running with it, Lue has continued to stay in touch with Rivers, someone he didn’t feel he could emulate but someone he learned from immensely.
“He’s 6-4 and he’s loud and he’s big, so I couldn’t do that,” Lue said. “But just his presence, when he walks into a room – his voice, how he commands a room when he walks in – I could be in China, if I hear that voice, I know it’s Doc.”
While Lue’s voice may not be as deep, Rivers says it's just as impactful. Humility is another gift of Lue's, according to Rivers.
“I wish I had things that he has," Rivers said. "I wish I could be calm like Ty…but that's how he always has been, no matter how difficult the situation.”
That innate calmness and serenity can pay off for a team in a Finals series, particularly when it goes down, 3-1. And when that team stays collected enough to come back and tie the series, it’s the other traits – the ones that were learned and developed over time – that can help push a team over the top.
In Lue’s case in Game 7, it was knowing when to push a player’s buttons – a trait he mastered while coaching with Rivers.
“He was kind of just grooming me for this moment,” Lue said. “If I would’ve never had his tutelage…who knows if I would’ve been comfortable doing it.”