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Paul Flannery | May 8, 2016

Sunday Shootaround: Tyronn Lue has unlocked the Cavaliers' devastating potential

Tyronn Lue has unlocked the Cavaliers' devastating potential

CLEVELAND -- It was Ty Lue’s birthday on Tuesday and for those of us old enough to remember him as a player there was a moment of recognition of our own encroaching middle age. With his cherubic face and easy athletic grace, Lue still looks the part of a point guard. But he’s 39 years old now and the faint whispers of gray reveal his professional path. "I dye mine gray," he joked, running his hand through his closely-cropped hair. "My Barack Obama look."

Lue has been a coach for only a few years and a head coach for barely a few months, but he’s taken to the job like a lifer. There are plenty of early signs to indicate that he may become a really good one, if he’s not already. Certainly the Cleveland Cavaliers have bet big on that being the case. Lue’s predecessor David Blatt had taken the Cavs to Game 6 of the Finals with an injury-ravaged roster that had been revamped at the trade deadline. When Blatt was fired in late January, the Cavs were 30-11 and comfortably in first place in the Eastern Conference.

The reasons for the dismissal have been well-documented. Blatt was hired to develop a team of young talent, not one with LeBron James and immediate designs on a championship. Their relationship was tenuous from the beginning and never really evolved. Any team with LeBron on its roster will have more than its share of tension and scrutiny, and Blatt didn’t help himself by being needlessly antagonistic with the press corps that covered the team. It was an unfair position for a decorated veteran coach of international competition to make his NBA debut, but this is an unfair business.

Blatt’s firing may have been a surprise, but Lue’s promotion to the big chair was not. League observers have been talking about his coaching potential from the moment he ended his career and took his place behind the Celtics bench under Doc Rivers. Those who have worked with him previously rave about his communication skills, sharp eye and upbeat approach. As one former colleague put it, "He isn’t afraid to tell a player the truth."

Lue’s confident in the way that people who truly know themselves are confident. That manifests itself in a natural charisma that translates well to his players.

"He’s never changed from the time he was an assistant to now in terms of his demeanor," Cavs GM David Griffin told me. "The moment’s never been too big for him. He’s been consistent and guys respect that."

James reinforced that notion following Cleveland’s Game 1 victory over Atlanta in the conference semifinals. The Cavs had built a big lead that evaporated in the second half after Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder got hot. The Cavs’ scheme essentially dared Schroder to beat them from the outside and he was doing just that. Lue stayed calm, his players responded and they walked away with an 11-point win.

"We have an even keel mentality starting with our head coach," James said after the game. "He’s the same way no matter the point in the game. When we mess up, he gets on us. He’s always saying, ‘OK let’s just move on to the next possession. Let’s figure out a way how we can be better on the next possession.’ No matter the point or score of the game he’s always the same way. It’s a calm feeling when you come come to the sideline no matter if you’re giving up a lead or not."

Comparisons to Blatt are inevitable and it doesn’t take much to read between the lines. It’s a no-win situation for Lue, who has gone out of his way to downplay that dynamic. He doesn’t want to be viewed as the guy who stepped over someone, to the point where ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported that Lue still hasn’t signed a new contract befitting his promotion. Still, this is the opportunity of a lifetime and he’d be foolish to be someone he’s not for the sake of appearances. His approach, which Lue said he learned from playing for Phil Jackson, has served him well.

"When you’re calm and you’re not complaining, you’re not rattled, that carries over to your team," Lue said. "If you react to every single call, to every single shot or every single turnover it doesn’t give your team confidence. I think being even-keeled, being poised, and staying with it, being positive with the guys, I think that’s best approach. Playing the game myself for 11 years I’ve seen how guys react to certain situations and I think it’s the best way to coach."

One shouldn’t confuse calmness with passivity. Lue has held LeBron accountable, both publically and privately, and those around the team say this is exactly what James wanted from his coach. If it was a test, Lue passed, but there is far more to coaching than developing relationships and setting boundaries.

Following a period of transition and adjustment during the regular season, Lue has made several key tactical decisions during the playoffs. He elevated Tristan Thompson into the starting lineup and tightened up his rotations, deploying more smallball lineups. He also made Kevin Love a featured part of the offense by playing through him in the post. Those strategies have integrated Love more fully into the offensive flow and unlocked what appears to be staggering offensive potential.

"They’re still huge. LeBron is as big as a four-man so it’s not like they’re losing that much size," Atlanta’s Kyle Korver told me before Game 1. "They obviously have a lot of shooting. It just gives Kyrie and LeBron more driving lanes. They’re a great drive and kick team. They’re very efficient around the basket and they’re very efficient from three. When you go small it’s harder to double, it’s harder to help because you’re worried about giving up 3-point shooting."

Korver’s remarks proved prescient a few days later when the Cavs’ 3-point shooting devastated the Hawks in a Game 2 rout featuring an NBA-record 25 made 3-pointers. Some of those threes were a byproduct of J.R. Smith’s uncanny knack for making absurd shots look normal. Many of them came from the simple tenets of ball movement, unselfish play and the confidence to knock down shots.

"We’re making the right play," Lue said. "When Kevin posts up and they double team we make the right pass out of the double team. Swing, swing, shot."

The Cavs’ are getting 60 percent of their makes off assists, an uptick from the regular season, and their turnovers are way down. Those are positive signs of trust and belief in one another. As Lue put it, "If they’re open, the guy that’s open knows he’s going to get the basketball. It’s fun to play that way."

Fun isn’t a word that hasn’t been thrown around all that much with the Cavs since LeBron came back. Tense is more like it. Edgy is another. But here they were on Wednesday night in Cleveland, knocking down shot after shot and having the time of their lives. They were having so much fun destroying the Hawks that a couple of Atlanta players, notably Paul Millsap, said they were bothered by their pursuit of the 3-point record. (Lue had his starters on the bench during the fourth quarter and noted in his postgame remarks that he didn’t care for the way the reserves were hunting shots.)

As Cav controversies go, this one merits barely any attention. There always has to be something and if blowing out their opponents is their biggest problem, then there really isn’t any problem at all. The bottom line is they made a very good Atlanta team look downright ordinary and if that bothers the Hawks, perhaps they shouldn’t have been two steps behind the action all night.

"I think we’re playing with appropriate fear," Griffin told me between Games 1 and 2. "I think we’re playing like we’re focused. Guys are just focused and playing together and for each other, which is good."

Fear is another word rarely featured in the Cavs’ lexicon, but playing with appropriate fear is an apt phrase for this team. They have achieved so much, so fast, but in their world they haven’t really achieved anything at all. Everything they’ve accomplished has been expected. That’s the burden and the blessing of employing LeBron James. Those accomplishments weren’t enough to save Blatt’s job and they haven’t been enough to satisfy the city’s thirst for a championship. There’s a lot riding on this postseason, but the Cavs seem more focused on the tasks at hand.

"There’s no reason to look ahead," LeBron said pointedly after the Game 2 romp when asked if they were sending a message to the rest of the league. "Tomorrow’s not promised. For our team we’re still a young group. Let’s not get this mistaken. We’re still a young group. We just got put together last year and then put together again toward the All-Star break. We don’t have enough games played in pressure situations for us to ever lose focus on what the main thing is and that’s to play the next game. We can’t afford it. We don’t have the experience of San Antonio and Golden State and OKC. We don’t have that. So we have to understand to be in the moment."

The moment came again in Game 3 on Friday when the Hawks built a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter. Lue called on Channing Frye to put another shooter on the floor to beat Atlanta’s traps and Frye went for 27 points. It was Cleveland’s version of the Lineup of Death and it was overwhelming. The moment for Tyronn Lue as a head coach is here, and he’s rewarding the faith the Cavs showed in him.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

Kevin Durant’s free agency will be the story of the summer, while DeMar DeRozan and Al Horford will also make huge scores. Beyond them, there are a number of players still active in the postseason who will define a market without established boundaries. They may not all be max players, but their deals will help establish some kind of parameters for what will be a chaotic offseason.

Kent Bazemore: The latest graduate of Hawks University, Bazemore has emerged as a fearless competitor with an improved 3-point shooting stroke. Given a larger role with the offseason departure of DeMarre Carroll, Bazemore acquitted himself well as a starter. He doesn’t Baze less -- as if that wasn’t even possible -- but his energetic style has been tempered by a better understanding of situations. It’s that relentless approach that got him into the league in the first place, and he has proven during the playoffs that he is unafraid of the moment. Bazemore will get a huge deal and casual observers will freak out, but he’s earned this opportunity.

Hassan Whiteside: The great conundrum of the regular season will be the most debated free agent on the market. Rough edges and all, Whiteside is a legitimately terrifying force in the middle. It’s hard to argue with his production and it’s even harder to knock his effort, given that he played through a variety of injuries before injuring his knee in Saturday's Game 3. Even with all that, the question isn’t whether he’ll get paid, but who will be the one shelling out the dough.

Bismack Biyombo: Rim-protecting centers were all the rage a few years ago, but they have begun to lose their luster with the transition toward smaller lineups and positional versatility. Here’s the thing, though: You don’t need one until you don’t have one. Biyombo’s offensive limitations are obvious, especially in the postseason, but he’s still a legit shot-blocker and rugged rebounder. The Raptors don’t have his full Bird Rights, meaning another team can grab him for the right offer.

Allen Crabbe: A F+Z favorite throughout the year, Crabbe is a 3+D wing whose 3-point shooting is ahead of his defensive presence. Shooting is the skill that teams lust over and a 24-year-old wing who makes almost 40 percent of his long-range shots will always find a market for his services. Crabbe is a restricted free agent and the Blazers would do very well to lock him up as part of their core.

Festus Ezeli: There has been a lot of attention paid to Harrison Barnes’ pending free agency and rightly so, for it has a ripple effect on the Warriors’ offseason plans (read: KD). Barnes is going to make big money and there will be teams lining up to secure his services. Ezeli, however, is also set to become a free agent and that will present another interesting pivot point for the franchise. He’s been groomed as Andrew Bogut’s successor and as Draymond Green testified the center is set to make, "Big money. Big money."

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"Our season was so up and down. We’d win games and have some success. I think we lost our first three games and we were 12-5, then we’d lose games, then we’d win games. It was so up and down and I really couldn’t figure it out. Was it the players? Or maybe we weren’t good enough. Was it because Paul (George) was hitting the wall a little bit? But there’s nothing I’ve really seen. It’s just the voice, it really is. Every day the same voice, I think guys sometimes tune it out." -- Pacer president Larry Bird after letting Frank Vogel go.

Reaction: There was a layer of tension that surrounded the Pacers this season. It began when George resisted the move to the four, preferring to stay at his natural wing position. It was there when Vogel was alternating between the smallball lineups that Bird preferred and the traditional two-big alignment that proved more successful. Vogel wrung 45 wins and a 7-game series out of this roster that even Bird acknowledged wasn’t good enough. Bird may be right about changing the voice, but Vogel has proven to be a capable coach who achieved strong results with whatever he was given. Good luck finding someone better.

"The decision was not about Dave’s in-game coaching. Dave did an admirable job managing games. However, being an NBA head coach is about more than just coaching a 48 minute game." -- Memphis GM Chris Wallace after firing Dave Joerger.

Reaction: Ziller made the case that Joerger did what he needed to do to get out of a messy situation, and it appears that Wallace himself interviewed with the Kings, as well. I wonder what Mike Conley thinks of all this.

"It just hurts me, because it’s unfair. He just shouldn’t be going through this, and I’m rooting so much for things to change around. I was with Kyle when Kyle was almost out of the rotation in Houston. He (had) come back from an injury and he was barely playing and that was probably the lowest point, after his rookie year when he got hurt. And I was there. I have seen him going through up and downs. He had up and downs a lot of times." -- Luis Scola on Kyle Lowry.

Reaction: Everyone should have Luis Scola as a teammate. He made these remarks before Game 2 and Lowry hit a few big shots to help the Raptors even their series with Miami.

"Game 2, I got a better feel for him, and kind of asserted my will on him." -- OKC wing Andre Roberson before Game 3 on Kawhi Leonard.

Reaction: Oh no. Roberson also went with the, "I’m not saying they’re old" gambit and well, whoops. Leonard went off for 31 points and 11 rebounds in Game 3, while Roberson was on the bench during crunch time. Don’t make Kawhi mad.

"It burns going down. You kind of feel dizzy if you’re not used to it. I got used to it." -- Leandro Barbosa on the mysterious green potion he drinks.

Reaction: The drink is made from the leaves of a South American shrub and is typically given to horses. God bless Scott Cacciola for this revelation.

Vine Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

Iman Dunkert is more like it.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.

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