There’s a popular bit performed inside TD Garden in Boston. During timeouts in Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, the camera finds this one guy. They put him up on the Jumbotron. In dramatic fashion, he unzips his pullover to reveal a green shirt with white letters spelling out the name of the Boston Celtics’ reluctant hero: Brad Stevens.
The crowd loses it as cameras zoom in to the name of the coach who never scored a bucket in the Celtics’ two wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers nor defended a single possession against LeBron James. This loud ovation for random-guy-in-a-shirt draws an even louder response than when Boston’s own Donnie Wahlberg gets face time on the big screen. Apparently, Stevens has the right stuff.
The series shifts to Cleveland on Saturday night, and good luck finding a fan with Tyronn Lue’s name spread across his or her chest. The Cavaliers’ coach does not evoke the same rock-star reaction as Stevens, who has been praised as a tactical mastermind for getting these Celtics (without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward) this far. Stevens thinks all the adulation is silly, but he can’t stop it. Lue, who has won an NBA championship, doesn’t have to beat back the worshipers.
There are no wine and gold shirts bearing his name. Quicken Loans Arena will not erupt if Lue’s image flashes across the scoreboard.
Among the four remaining coaches in the conference finals — including Stevens, Houston’s Mike D’Antoni and Golden State’s Steve Kerr — Lue is easily the most second-guessed. This might have prompted ESPN analyst Mark Jackson, who knows a thing or two about being a maligned coach, to extol Lue’s virtues during Game 2.
An “outstanding coach,” Jackson called Lue, before mentioning Lue’s winning percentage since taking over for David Blatt midway through the 2015-16 season (.624). However, the Cavaliers trail this series 2-0 and, by Thursday, Cleveland-area reporters were questioning Lue’s substitution patterns in the Cavaliers’ Game 2 loss.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Boston had overcome a double-digit deficit to take a seven-point lead, and yet Lue responded by playing a five-man lineup devoid of both James and five-time all-star Kevin Love. Jackson might think Lue is “outstanding,” but others in the area are of a different mind, such as Cleveland.com, which offered up a piece with this headline: “Tyronn Lue made costly mistake with his lineup in Game 2, says he will be better.”
Interestingly enough, it was Lue’s bold starting lineup change in Game 7 of Cleveland’s first-round series that generated some positive feedback. Lue unleashed Tristan Thompson, who had spent much of the matchup against the Indiana Pacers on the bench.
“Going into Game 7 and putting Tristan up there, nobody was expecting that,” veteran Jose Calderon said in defense of his coach. “There’s a lot of good coaches out there and I think Ty is one of the best. I’ve been around him. He’s been pretty good — to handle everything we went through this season with injuries, change of lineups, trades in the middle of the season.”
The Thompson move helped the Cavaliers take that Game 7 and advance in the playoffs — well, that, and James’s ridiculous line of 45 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. James was just as fantastic in the next round in the Cavs’ sweep of the top-seeded Toronto Raptors, averaging 34 points, 8.3 assists and 11.3 rebounds. Naturally, Lue received the Stevens treatment after performances like that.
Lue very well may be the kind of coach Jackson believes he is, but having James on his team keeps him from being universally recognized. It’s the trade-off. Stevens gets the respect. Lue resides in the background to James, and will never get his own T-shirt for that role.
“It’s not only one play or it’s not about just only putting a guy [in the game],” Calderon said. “It’s why it’s tough just to say how good or how bad. There’s a lot going on with coaches and it’s a tough job.
“He’s a good coach. I don’t think there has to be any comparison between coaches. Everybody has their own way to coach.”
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