Tyronn Lue is holding LeBron James accountable, and they're closer because of it

Embarking on his first playoffs as a head coach, Tyronn Lue is on the same page with his superstar player. David Richard/USA TODAY Sports

CLEVELAND -- Last year, after making his biggest play to that point of the season, Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James made a point of explaining how he overruled his head coach on what set to run for the final shot in a playoff win over the Chicago Bulls.

After carrying the Cavs over the final five minutes of another quality playoff win, this one over the Atlanta Hawks on Monday, James went out of his way to praise his head coach.

It's not fair to boil everything about David Blatt and Tyronn Lue into individual anecdotes, but it is helpful in explaining the complex relationships they have with Cavs players. And it's moments like this that illustrate why the team's decision-makers feel positive about that midseason coaching change, regardless of how this season plays out.

Evaluating Lue has been somewhat challenging over the past few months. The raw data hasn't been much different than under Blatt, if not slightly declined in some areas. Factually, the Cavs had a worse record with Lue (27-14) than Blatt (30-11).

However, there continue to be moments when it becomes more clear how much stronger Lue's connection is with the Cavs' core players. Game 1 had several examples. The most vivid were from James, who on multiple occasions made sure to explain how Lue's actions were a factor in the victory:

  • On the strategy of focusing the defense on Hawks guard Kyle Korver, who got just one shot, and allowing Dennis Schroder a playoff career-high 27 points, James said: "We had a game plan, and we follow the game plan our coaching staff gives us."

  • On what Lue did during second-half timeouts after the Cavs blew an 18-point lead: "Our coach and our coaching staff are very even keel, and we just try to stay in the moment. ... It's a calm feeling when you come to the sideline no matter if you've given up a lead or not."

  • On adjustments that were made late in the game: "There's a game in between the game people don't see. It's up to us to follow the game plan the coach sets for us."

This is just not normal behavior from James, to look for ways to bring back attention to his coach. It's not as though that has never happened, but affirming the coach was not a part of the way he operated while playing for Blatt. For the time being -- and all coach-player relationships in the league are fragile and subject to sudden change -- James continues to display that he is invested in Lue's success.

Fair or not, deserved or not, that was rarely the case with Blatt.

Those within the team insist this is a product of Lue being more demanding and setting a tone of accountability within the team. And here is a prime example of how Lue has gone about his business: the Kevin Love conundrum.

One of the issues that plagued the Cavs was end-of-game distrust that frequently existed between Love, James and Kyrie Irving. It was normal for Love to have big first quarters but disappear in the fourth. And it was a compounding problem; Love often wasn't effective late, but Irving and James would often forget about him.

Lue attacked the issue from both ends by getting on James and Irving when they didn't involve Love. But he also got on Love for letting down just because he wasn't always getting the ball. This is the accountability he preached when he took the job after Blatt was fired.

It hasn't been an instant or perfect switch, but there has been progress. In Game 1, Love was mired in a bad shooting game as he went 4-of-17. But he was still active and involved in the fourth quarter, and Irving and James kept looking for him. Love ended up getting to the foul line five times and getting three rebounds down the stretch.

"He's the same way, no matter the point in the game," James said. "If we mess up, he gets on us, but he's always saying: 'OK, let's move on to the next possession. Let's figure out a way we can be better next possession.'"

Handling James is prickly. Those who know him believe he likes to be held accountable by his coach and he doesn't actually want to make all the decisions despite what the perception may be. But he also will challenge his coach to execute and will abandon the situation if he doesn't like the sales pitch. So that brings back the "I scratched it" moment from last season's playoffs, when James talked openly about overriding Blatt.

Lue is going in strong on the former, believing the way to get the most from James is to hold him to a standard. But he does it without wrath.

"I got it from Phil Jackson," Lue said. "I think just being even-keeled, being poised, staying with it, being positive with the guys. I think it's the best approach."

Will this continue to work with James, Love and Irving? Pretty hard to say, as the history of all of this is so limited. In the playoffs, a team is just a bad three or four days from a crisis. But it's worth notice that Lue's mix of firm and steady hands appears to be showing traction.

"I just think that when you're calm and you're not complaining and you're not rattled, that carries over to your team," Lue said. "I think if you react to every single call, every single shot or every single turnover, it doesn't give your team confidence."