The question was simple with anticipation that the answer would be complex.
Paul George, the Clippers’ last star standing, slid his left hand around his face as he took a deep breath. His team had just undone their second consecutive 2-0 series deficit, going a remarkable 8-1 in the first and second rounds of the NBA playoffs after the winless starts.
He’d just managed to reach the conference finals for the first time in the history of the Clippers’ half-century existence, silencing critics and slaying invisible curses all at once.
“How?” the reporter wondered.
“T. Lue,” the All-Star forward said. “T. Lue.”
Just like he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers, coach Tyronn Lue has a team out on the court defying the past, embracing the challenges of the present while, at least publicly, ignoring the unavoidable ghosts that have haunted the organizations.
In Lue’s first year after replacing Doc Rivers, the Clippers will try to conquer another hurdle and satisfy another first. That all starts Sunday in Phoenix when the Western Conference finals begin, the Clippers closer to their goal than they’ve ever been.
A trip to the NBA Finals can’t happen in one night, but after dispatching the Utah Jazz, the Clippers certainly believe it can happen — a testament to Lue’s steadiness and keen eye for change when necessary.
“He always find a way to talk to us so we don’t panic,” forward Nicolas Batum said. “We stay calm. We stay cool.”
Lue has moved players in and out of the starting lineup, leaned on veterans and then created spots for younger players. He has done it with stars and with supporting pieces.
They weathered what could’ve been crippling news after Kawhi Leonard injured his right knee during the second round — he’ll miss at least Game 1 and probably more. And they’ll have to deal with Chris Paul’s emotional debut in the series after the former Clippers guard clears the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Each was officially listed as out for Game 1 on Saturday.
It’s a hallmark of Lue’s teams — the right move at the right time being more important than stigmas created by generational losing that proceeded him.
In Cleveland, it was civic sports failure stretched from diamonds to football fields to basketball courts. In Los Angeles, it’s the Clippers and an unavoidable past filled with either neglect or regret, chances like last year’s 3-1 second-round lead against Denver squandered every time they’d been presented.
But that was before T. Lue.
Clippers fans celebrate at Staples Center after their curse-breaking 131-119 defeat of the Utah Jazz on June 18, 2021.
The Clippers’ 2-0 recoveries were historic — no team had done it twice in the same postseason — but no one seemed too surprised.
“I was confident we would figure it out,” Reggie Jackson said after Game 6.
Before Friday’s win Lue said he didn’t want his team thinking about the past, that those lessons didn’t matter because he wasn’t the head coach then. And now that he is, he got to enjoy seeing a fanbase revel in the unusual.
“They have been starving, starved for success,” he said. “They have had a lot of good teams and just caught a lot of bad breaks. We know when Kawhi went down, [they were] probably thinking the same thing over and over again, or when CP got hurt or Blake [Griffin] got hurt. Our team, I just tell you, they just don’t quit.
“They keep fighting and competing and I think our fans see that this year. We never gave in, never pointed a finger. Never pointed the blame on someone else. We looked in the mirror and we owned it.”
Lue’s acumen will definitely be tested by the Suns. Going small, which worked so well against Dallas and Utah, might not be as palatable with an offensively gifted player like DeAndre Ayton. Ayton is averaging 15.2 points and 10.6 rebounds on 71.6% shooting this postseason, also making it harder for defenses to key on Devin Booker, another dead-eye outside scorer.
It’s a new set of challenges for a team that has patiently conquered all the ones in front of them so far this postseason.
And how? They say it’s Lue.
“Got to give most of the credit to him and the guys just doing whatever it takes,” George said. “Willing game after game, just willing these wins out and just playing with straight toughness and trusting each other. I thought the second half tonight you saw the team trusting one another. And that’s the reason why we were able to close the second round out.”
And it’s the reason why the Clippers get to keep going.