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2018 NBA Playoffs

Tyronn Lue reflects on the NBA Finals, LeBron’s greatness and his love of Shirley Temples

‘When you get to the Finals so many times, the regular season becomes boring. It’s too long.’

Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue had a little time for reflection before the presentation of the 2018 NBA Eastern Conference champions trophy on Sunday in Boston. Arriving before Cavaliers star LeBron James, fellow All-Star Kevin Love and the rest of the coaching staff and players, Lue reflected on all the “tough” challenges that took place this season on and off the court before this franchise defied odds to return to its fourth consecutive NBA Finals.

“I was by myself with all [my] thoughts, collecting [them], and was just like, ‘It’s tough, man,’ ” Lue told The Undefeated on Monday night, a day after winning a deciding Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals over the host Boston Celtics. “People say it’s easy, but it’s hard to win. You’ve got to be lucky. You’ve got to be healthy. A lot goes into it, man, every game.

“The [first-round playoff] series in Indiana, people thought we were done. Then we came back to sweep Toronto, and then [the Celtics] were playing great. People didn’t give us a chance in that series, so we’re in Game 7, they’ve been undefeated all playoffs at home. It says a lot about the culture we tried to build here in Cleveland, and LeBron, and the team, that the guys put in the work here.”

Lue, James and the Cavaliers learned on Monday night that they will be playing a familiar foe in the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals for the fourth straight time. The Warriors became Western Conference champions by defeating the host Houston Rockets 101-92 in a deciding Game 7. The Warriors won the regular-season series 2-0.

Golden State defeated the Cavaliers in the 2015 and 2017 NBA Finals; the Cavs took the 2016 title. Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals begins on Thursday in Oakland, California.

“Playing them for the fourth time is just an unbelievable achievement,” Lue said. “I don’t think people understand how hard it is, how hard it is to win. And to get back to the Finals, it’s not easy. It’s tough. It’s a grueling season. When you get to the Finals so many times, the regular season becomes boring. It’s too long.

“To have the resilience to keep playing, keep fighting and not letting go of the rope, is huge. They’re a well-coached team. I love Steve Kerr, what he’s done with that team. They have a lot of firepower; they’re great defensively. To be the last teams left again, that’s a cool thing.”

The following is an exclusive Q&A with Lue and The Undefeated that centers on the Cavaliers’ up-and-down season, his nine-game regular-season absence that was due to a health scare, James’ MVP-caliber season and dominant postseason performance, Love’s status after being placed in concussion protocol, and more.

When the dust settled late Sunday night and the Cavaliers were the 2018 Eastern Conference champs, what did you reflect on?

Mostly, just going through the whole season, and trades, and losing guys, gaining guys. We had some rough patches, some tough times. But sometimes it made us stronger. The season is so long now, it feels like everything runs together. The trades — [Dwyane] Wade, [Derrick] Rose, Isaiah [Thomas] — felt like a year or two years ago. It just seemed like the season is so long. We played an extra two months of basketball heading to our fourth straight NBA Finals. It was just a tough, hard road. I give the guys credit for staying the course and being resilient. …

We worked so hard, and the odds were stacked against us. We got back to the Finals. It speaks volumes of the culture we tried to build around here in Cleveland. It speaks volumes of LeBron and who he is as a player, playing all 82 games. He could’ve very easily cut on the team, but he wanted to lead by example showing all the new guys, even through tough times, he was willing to play and compete at a high level every single night — carrying us into the playoffs, man. It’s a lot of emotions. A lot of things went into this season, and after it was all over it was like a sigh of relief. Man, Finals again, after everything. After we were counted out, doubted. We were able to prevail and do it again.

How do you reflect on your nine-game absence late in the regular season for health reasons? What was the determining factor toward your return?

It was tough. A lot of coaches reached out, talking to Steve Kerr; [Boston’s] Brad Stevens; both Van Gundys, [ex-Detroit Pistons coach] Stan and [former NBA coach] Jeff; [Dallas Mavericks coach] Rick Carlisle. Everybody reached out. [Ex-Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford], who experienced the same thing. It was tough. When I came back I wasn’t ready, but I knew I only had three more games to coach to get ready for the playoffs, so if I was gonna do it, I had to come back then.

I don’t think I was quite ready, but I came back. I wasn’t gonna let those guys go through this: all the pressure, all the stuff that comes with the job. I wasn’t gonna let those guys go through it without me. It wasn’t fair to them. It wasn’t fair to the players, so I knew I had to get back out there. I wasn’t quite ready when I came back, but I feel great now.

When I first came back I felt good, but I wasn’t where I needed to be. After coaching the last game against New York before going to the playoffs, I thought I really started feeling really, really good.

What did you change to improve your health?

Just my diet. I have a chef who comes and cooks for me. She’s a dietitian who has a culinary degree. She cooks healthy, no sugars. … I’m working out when I get a chance too. Trying to cut back on the sweets as much as possible. Just trying to do the right thing.

“I love Shirley Temples. I love them. I’m a sugar guy. I’ve never had a drink or smoke in my life, but I love sugars.”

What was your devil foodwise?

I love Shirley Temples. I love them. I’m a sugar guy. I’ve never had a drink or smoke in my life, but I love sugars, sweets, cakes, cookies. Whatever it is, I love it, man. That was probably my biggest downfall.

Is it safe to say you want to be back as head coach of the Cavaliers next season?

Yeah. Yeah, I would say it’s safe to say that.

How did you adapt to the trades and major roster changes Cleveland made this season?

We had four guys, four new guys in our rotation. Two of them had never been to the playoffs. [George] Hill had been deep, but Rodney Hill has only been to the playoffs one time. It was an unknown. You weren’t really sure how they’d respond to the playoff atmosphere. One thing about a playoff is all about adjustment and matchups, things of that nature. We’ve been doing it all season, we’ve been adjusting all season. [We had] no point guard for half the season because Rose got hurt the seventh game.

I.T. [Thomas] was out half a season. Kevin Love was out for six weeks, [Ante] Zizic missed six weeks. ‘Shump’ [Iman Shumpert] missed six weeks. Guys have just been in and out all year. We caught a little rhythm and then we made a trade, got four more guys and lost six. Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson were a big part of what we did here. We just did a lot of change, but a lot of guys stuck with it and understood that it’s gonna be a long process. We just wanted to keep getting better throughout the course of the season until the playoffs hit.

Any update on Love’s concussion situation?

He has to work out [Monday]. I’m not sure. We had a draft workout today, so we were in there watching that, and then he was getting loose and stretched in the weight room and he had a workout after that.

How amazing of a season has LeBron James had, and how much of a pleasure has it been to coach him?

It’s unbelievable because he makes everything so easy. He makes everybody better, from the players as well as the coaches. That’s just the way that he is. I think the years that he’s had — this has to be one of the best years he’s had in his career, and I say that because so many guys being out and going through all the tough times and played all 82 games at a high level. That something.

He could’ve easily let go of the ropes, he could’ve easily gave up on the team. But to play 82 games after going through all that we went through, all the turmoil, and to play 82 games and perform at a high level again in the playoffs, it just speaks volumes of who he is as a person, as far as his character.

“It’s bigger than me. I don’t want all the credit. It’s all of us together as a whole.”

What made you give a shoutout to each member of your coaching staff during the Eastern Conference champions trophy ceremony?

Every chance I get I always try to do that. It’s not about me, it’s about the team, the organization, about the coaching staff, everybody collectively. Those guys don’t get a lot of credit. I just wanted to let everybody know this is my staff. This is who every day, every night they’re grinding, trying to come up with things that work and plan, game plan. These are my guys.

These are the guys that help me put together everything. It’s bigger than me. I don’t want all the credit. It’s all of us together as a whole. I always give them shoutouts, but this time it was on a bigger stage [to] say every single guy’s name.

Your first NBA championship as a coach in 2016 was like your first child. But with everything that the Cavaliers have been through this season, what do you think a 2018 NBA championship would mean to you?

I don’t even have words to describe that. You just go through different challenges this season, all the ups and downs, the different pieces and the different players, new gym. [general manager] Koby Altman has done a great job, filled in for [ex-Cavaliers general manager David Griffin], who I love a lot. A lot of changing pieces, a lot of changing parts. But to stay the course and get through what we got through and win another one, man, I don’t even have words to describe it.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.