The Cleveland Cavaliers might not see themselves as underdogs, but it’s hard for us not to view them that way. Even as defending champions, the Cavaliers just don’t have three players who made the All-NBA team and a fourth who just missed, like the Warriors do. It’s not an insurmountable talent gap, but clearly Cleveland will be the team that needs to find ways to even the disparity.
The person who has the most responsibility for doing just that is Tyronn Lue.
Lue was the right choice for the Cavaliers over David Blatt.
David Blatt’s season and a half in Cleveland wasn’t totally fair, but head coaching jobs often aren’t. He was hired to manage young players and develop a team that was near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, not deal with LeBron James and championship expectations. When Cleveland fired him in 2016, it was abrupt ... but it had also been coming for a long time.
The decision clearly worked out when the Cavaliers won the championship later that summer. He works better with James and has a more respectable demeanor. When asked about his head coach, James gave this answer on Sunday.
“There’s so many adjectives and things of that nature, but I just think his level of calmness no matter what’s going on. We always talk about that he’s already won in life, so anything that happens after this is extra credit. So I feel the same way, that’s why I’m able to relate to him so much. Lose here, win a game here, cool. I’ve already done so much more than anyone ever gave me credit or thought I could do. So there’s no reason to get too high or too low. It’s the even keeled mentality about our coach and definitely helps us as players when you’re going out to a war.
“Throughout the postseason there so many emotions going high, going low. As players, things of that nature, if your coach is able to stay even keeled throughout the whole thing, I think it relaxes the rest of the group.”
It’s something our own Paul Flannery wrote about in a Lue profile last summer, too.
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."
The biggest difference is how much the Cavaliers respect Lue.
Lue’s not far removed from his playing career — his final six seasons came with James in the league. Where Blatt was rigid, Lue is much more carefree, both personality wise and how he requires the Cavaliers to play on the court. In turn, the players reward him with their trust.
Everyone was on the same page during the regular season when the Cavaliers took extreme care not to overexert themselves. They skated through with minimal effort while always looking ahead to the postseason. Given the way they swept through the first three series, it was clearly the right move.
It was no secret that James didn’t get along with Blatt during his time in Cleveland. Lue has earned his trust, and James is more willing to cede control to him.
But it’s the same for the rest of the team, too. He has taken blame for Kevin Love’s small role early in the postseason and then actively looked to fix it, resulting in Love going off against the Celtics in the conference finals. When Kyrie Irving was left off the All-NBA team, Lue described himself as “very surprised” and later called him a top-three point guard in the league. It’s responsible coaching to stick up for your players and follow through on change after acknowledging mistakes, and players take note of that.
What can Lue do against the Warriors?
Lue has hinted at a “secret plan” that would fix the Cavaliers’ defense once they got to the playoffs, and Cleveland has clearly been better. Perhaps instead of using James — Cleveland’s best defensive weapon — to guard any particular player (Durant, mostly), perhaps the Cavaliers could try playing him on the fifth member of a rotation and allowing James to roam as a free safety.
It’s not about stopping the Warriors because that will never happen. Cleveland has to find some way to bother them, though, to be successful in this series.
All season, Lue has been coaching the Cavaliers to get to this series, even at the expense of the season itself. Now they’re finally here, and we’ll see how prepared they really are for what’s to come.