Clippers’ string of incredible comebacks has a lot to do with Tyronn Lue

Clippers forward Justine Winslow drives to the basket during a comeback win over the Washington Wizards. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

It was nearly 30 years ago that Terry Nooner learned what the Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers and Washington Wizards each found out the hard way the past two weeks.

Nooner had just moved to a suburb southeast of Kansas City late in high school when Raytown High’s basketball coach introduced him to his neighbor across the street, a fellow guard named Tyronn Lue.

Lue also had moved to Raytown partway through high school, from Mexico, Mo., a little town where “everyone there thinks they are the best in the world at whatever they do,” Nooner said. He quickly realized the attitude bled into everything his new teammate did.

Behind supreme self-confidence, Lue won at cards, ping-pong, craps, billiards, and trash talk. And especially at basketball.

Raytown started Lue’s senior season 27-0. Despite being listed generously as 6 feet tall, Lue, as a college prospect, caught the eye of then-Lakers boss Jerry West. Eventually he won a playoff roster spot with the Lakers and two NBA championships, the friendships of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jordan as teammates and the trust of LeBron James as a coach.

As a midseason replacement, without any prior head coaching experience, he led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2016 NBA championship after trailing a previously unsurmountable three games to one in the finals. Last June, the Clippers’ breakthrough to the conference final, after five decades of falling short, came under his watch.

“How can you just do everything?” Nooner wondered admiringly in 2020 after his friend’s appointment as the Clippers’ coach. Yet Lue did so much so well and so frequently that over time when Lue’s friends back home heard him repeat a certain refrain, it began to sound less like a boast and more like a promise.

“Ol’ Lue,” Lue told them, “always comes out on top.”

He and the Clippers did so again Tuesday after a franchise-record 35-point comeback at Washington that tied for the NBA’s second-largest rally since the league began keeping play-by-play data in 1996. The 116-115 victory was the Clippers third after they had trailed by at least 24 points, the first time that has happened in a single season — let alone in a 14-day span.

If there remains no clear picture of how long this team’s season will last given their two best players, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, are recovering from significant injuries with hazy timelines to return, the last two weeks offer evidence that they will get wherever they are going at full speed, with full belief, and as full adherents to their coach’s “keep pushing” doctrine.

“No matter how hard the circumstances are, just for me, coming from Mexico, Missouri, you never give up, you always try to fight and keep pushing through,” Lue said Tuesday, after bottles of cold water were emptied over his head as he broke the celebratory huddle in a joyous locker room. “I want to instill that in these guys and a lot of these guys have that.”

Like the others before it, this rally started with small goals, chopping a preposterous-sized comeback into more manageable, piece-by-piece chunks — the same blueprint they will be required to follow through the regular season’s mid-April end, as they continue to chase postseason contention despite a shorthanded roster.

“Every timeout, try to cut it down a little bit,” forward Amir Coffey said. “Try to get three stops in a row. Just go about it that way.”

This run calls to mind the gritty resilience shown during another lengthy Clippers road trip nearly three years ago exactly, when they claimed comebacks of 20-plus points in Detroit and Charlotte before trading or waiving nearly half their roster at the trade deadline — then pulled off a 28-point comeback in their first game with their new parts.

Ask the Clippers about whether they are seeing double and they resist the comparison. Only one player and a handful of assistants remain from that team. The players, head coach and circumstances are all different.

At least three of the 2019 Clippers’ top four scorers played in all three of those midseason comebacks. Three years later, Leonard and George are sidelined, Marcus Morris Sr. did not play Tuesday because of personal reasons, and a back spasm kept Nicolas Batum out in the second half. Lue further chopped his rotation to just eight after benching starters Reggie Jackson and Ivica Zubac in the second half after determining they “just didn’t have it tonight” following a series of missed shots and defensive communications.

That left them without one of their primary sources of offense and a center who had just registered three consecutive double-doubles. Backup center Serge Ibaka also did not register a second-half second.

It was why some of the most telling moments of the comeback were tangential to the action on the court. Benched rotation players exhorted their replacements. And an overjoyed Jackson embraced Lue afterward, the guard looking like it was he, not Luke Kennard, who had scored seven points in the final nine seconds to stun the Wizards.

“Even the guys that didn’t come back in and start or play, they just said ‘Keep fighting and stay together, we’ve done this before,’” Kennard said.

Lue was hired with a championship on his resume and a reputation of dropping and elevating players to get what he has wanted most since growing up in Missouri. But Clippers players had to experience it for themselves, to have their minutes slashed at a moment’s notice, the kind of abrupt change not easily handled amid complex locker room dynamics.

One member of the team’s travel party Tuesday called Lue “masterful” not only at mixing and matching lineups to find the right combinations — Scrubb, Justise Winslow and Isaiah Hartenstein, all vital cogs in the comeback, had combined for four total minutes just one game earlier — but getting players to go along with it.

“They believe in me a little bit. A lot of bit, maybe,” Lue said after Friday’s 24-point win in Philadelphia. “I have earned their trust. When you try different things, do different things, they understand it’s for the best of the team and it is not for me or anybody else. I just want to win the game that night. After that, we can take care of whatever we got to do the next game.”

All of that might suggest a smooth build to this point. It hasn’t been. Lue prides himself on his preparation, but injuries and COVID quarantines have forced his best-laid plans to be scrapped. Eight different starting lineups have been used in the past month and at times the Clippers’ focus has wandered, their execution has crumbled and players and coaches have been left frustrated. They entered Wednesday ninth in the Western Conference at 24-25, one spot ahead of the cutoff for the postseason’s play-in round.

But in the absence of consistency, the Clippers have taken a cue from their coach and leaned hard into adaptability and confidence.

“I feel like guys have been trusting him from the beginning,” Coffey said after Friday’s 24-point comeback in Philadelphia. “We communicate with each other, no hard feelings with anything. You can talk about anything on the court, off the court, it’s easy to play with when you have coaches you can trust, players on the court you can trust. It’s just going to end in a good result.”

A result that, in the face of so many long-odds circumstances this month, has often led to the same place, the one where Lue has always expected to finish.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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