Cold, hard truth from Tyronn Lue sets the Clippers free against Lakers

Andrew Greif
Los Angeles Clippers coach Tyronn Lue
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue yells from the bench during the season opener against the Lakers on Tuesday at Staples Center. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Tyronn Lue learned one of the most important lessons of his NBA life early during his 11-year career from then-Lakers teammate Brian Shaw.

A late-first round draft pick out of Nebraska, the 6-foot Lue was not going to give the Lakers 20 points each night. He was not going to even be in the rotation every night. But as a matter of accountability, he could tell the truth as he saw it every night, even if it meant inviting temporary ire from the roster's bigger names.

“Being able to tell the truth to those guys, when they probably never hear it a lot,” Lue said. “And they respect you for that.”

It was why, more than two decades later, during his first training camp as Clippers coach this month, Lue told his team the truth. The 43-year-old coach has few hobbies outside of basketball. His job, as he saw it, was to work daily to find the best system to design around the roster’s talents. But the only way the Clippers could maximize their potential would be if the players’ focus was just as unwavering.

“I tell them every day I don't want it to be a thing where we do it for two weeks and then we come back the next week and we've got to talk about how we've got to do stuff harder,” Lue said in a phone interview last week. “We should be doing that every single day.”

The intent behind the message was driven home amid a 116-109 season-opening victory Tuesday over the Lakers in which the Clippers exorcised some of their postseason demons.

A Clippers lead that had grown to 22 points in the first half became a 75-all tie with five minutes to play in the third quarter. Instead of buckling as during the playoffs, when double-digit leads were lost in all three of their final second-round losses, the Clippers forcefully pushed back. Their answer was highlighted by the burst of offense provided by Paul George, whose 33 points provided a modicum of personal redemption after an up-and-down postseason.

For a franchise fresh off an offseason of humiliation, it was the ideal opening-night response. But it will quickly lose its shine if the good habits displayed in the victory, from the on-court execution to communication, aren't sustained.

“We got a lot more work to do to continue to keep building getting better,” Lue said. “It's going to be a process.”

Tuesday represented the first stress test of that process, and it was significant. After shooting 70% overall and 50% on three-pointers in the first quarter, the Clippers made seven of their 25 shots in the second quarter. Twelve first-half turnovers led to 15 Lakers points. As the Lakers made shots, the Clippers’ opportunities to run in transition dwindled, forcing the Clippers to work harder for their points.

The Clippers led by two at halftime. Having already claimed their championship rings in a pregame ceremony, LeBron James and Anthony Davis were now coming for the lead.

Lakers forward LeBron James is defended by Clippers center Ivica Zubac.
Lakers forward LeBron James is defended by Clippers center Ivica Zubac. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“We’re playing a great team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the other side of the basketball, they’re going to make a run at some point,” Lue said. “You’ve just got to withstand it.”

In the second half, the Clippers committed four turnovers and George scored 10 straight points to end the third quarter. He scored 26 in the final half.

Kawhi Leonard, who scored 26 points on 26 shots, said that even if the Clippers had lost he still would have felt they made progress because of what he saw during the team’s second-quarter regression.

“I just appreciate everyone staying locked in and focused and just being positive and keeping their heads up,” Leonard said. “Once we saw the lead going down, we talked to each other, we tried to figure out what was going on and we came out in the second half and playing good basketball. … That is what I take pride in, not the missed or made shots.”

In the postseason, Clippers teammates occasionally bickered with one another during timeouts. When it was over in September, Leonard said he wanted the front office to upgrade the roster's "basketball IQ." Tuesday was a first opportunity to gauge the new roster's ability to problem-solve on the fly, a process that relies on open communication, Lue said.

“We don’t want to be a front-running team; when things are going great, we’re cheering for one another,” Lue said. “When things are going bad, we’re going to do the same.”

As the Clippers' lead wobbled and similarities to last season's coda became uncanny, Lue told his team the truth at halftime. George needed to become more aggressive on offense. Their unforced errors, and the turnovers that resulted from them, had to stop. The opportunity to win was there, if they were willing to work for it.

“When things are not going well, you need that positive criticism,” Leonard said. “That is going to push guys to either play better or, if they are miscommunicating on the floor or missing reads on either end, I think it would help if everybody steps up and say something. It’s Game 1, we want to keep building on it and have the same energy night after night. We are not there yet, it is a long season ahead of us.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.