It's gut-check time for Tyronn Lue and the Cavaliers

Tyronn Lue is 12-6 since taking over for David Blatt as Cavaliers head coach. David Richard/USA TODAY Sports

It was a cold New York City night at Madison Square Garden three years ago when Tyronn Lue's quick decision-making helped stop a heated confrontation from coming to blows.

Following a win by Lue's Boston Celtics against the New York Knicks, Carmelo Anthony sought out Kevin Garnett in the bowels of MSG, taking umbrage with trash talk Garnett had uttered during the game -- reportedly centered on Anthony's wife -- and wanting to settle the score.

"It's just something that escalated on the court and it became a big ordeal on the floor. They were about to fight," Lue told ESPN.com in a recent sit-down interview. "And then after the game, I just got wind that Carmelo was in the tunnel waiting on KG."

Lue, who was an assistant coach for the Celtics at the time, had a strong relationship with Garnett, and also knew Anthony. If there was anyone to broker peace in the moment, it was Lue.

"I kind of went to Carmelo first just to talk to him like, 'What's the problem?'" Lue recalled. "Carmelo was like, 'I just want to talk to him.' I was like, 'Carmelo, come on, you can't.' So, just trying to squash the whole thing."

Meanwhile, Garnett emerged from the visitors locker room. Anthony, flanked by several friends, started to advance toward the notoriously big-mouthed big man. Now it was Lue's turn to go work on Garnett.

"I just kind of broke it up and said, 'No, we're not going to do this. KG, come on, let's get on the bus,'" Lue said, describing how he ushered Garnett onto the Celtics' chartered vehicle.

Then it was time to go work on Anthony again.

"I get Carmelo's number," Lue said. "I call him, talk to him and put KG on the phone with him on the bus and they talked and we squashed it from there."

Crisis was averted and an ugly incident between two of the game's highest-profile names was sidestepped, all thanks to the 6-foot, 175-pound Lue coming in between the 6-11, 240-pound Garnett and the 6-8, 240-pound Anthony.

What made Lue do it? Why stick his neck out in a beef that didn't involve him between men twice his size? "Just instinctive," Lue said.

And just as quick as Lue had to rely on his gut to steer everyone away from a major black eye for the league, he's now trusting those same impulses to try to pull off what would become one of the greatest feats in NBA history.

Challenges never cease

Lue has had precious little time to go on anything but instincts since taking over for the fired David Blatt as head coach of the Cavaliers some five weeks ago.

Not only was roaming the sidelines as a head coach new to him, but here he was doing it in the middle of the season without the benefit of a training camp or a coaching staff of his choosing. The team he was taking over needed someone to corral a collection of headstrong superstars in order to succeed, all the while adhering to a championship-or-bust decree. Simple, right?

Lue's overall record of 12-6 is nothing to be ashamed of, but when you take over for a guy who went 30-11 to start the season, anything less than exemplary is a failure. Lue was reminded of that last week when the Cavs lost three out of four and it felt like the walls were caving in on Cleveland -- at least from the outside looking in.

There was daily drama from questions about how much LeBron James has left in the tank after a deplorable performance in a loss to Detroit, to criticism directed at Kyrie Irving in a shoddy defensive showing against Toronto, to a condemnation of the entire team when they were walked all over in Washington.

There were also trade rumors about Kevin Love leading up to the trade deadline, a report detailing Irving's discontent and his superstar, James, jetting down to Miami for a couple of days this week to get away from it all when the team had off.

There's good reason the bags under Lue's brown eyes are more noticeable these days. A split screen of Lue today next to a photo of him back in January when Blatt was at the helm and he was simply the highest paid assistant coach in all of basketball would show accelerated aging -- as if someone placed a "U.S. presidential term" filter on his face on Instagram.

Yet he was able to rationalize each challenge.

Love and Irving? They're still in uniform and won't be going anywhere between now and June, which is all Lue is focused on anyway. The Raptors loss? "I was pleased about leading 46 minutes of the game and two of our Big Three not playing particularly well offensively," Lue said.

The Wizards letdown? "LeBron [was] not playing, so I didn't have any issue with it at all."

"You're going to win some games, you're going to lose some games but for me, it's just all about if we're getting better for our goal going down the stretch and playing in the playoffs." Tyronn Lue

James visiting Miami? He raved about how the team practiced their first day back together after the break, focusing on what he can control.

"It's a game," Lue said, dismissing anything noteworthy about his calm demeanor. "You're going to win some games, you're going to lose some games, but for me, it's just all about if we're getting better for our goal going down the stretch and playing in the playoffs."

His approach has earned the respect of the Cavs' best player.

"I think he's done a great job," James said. "He's [even-keeled] as well. He just wants us to get better every single day and not waste an opportunity. Continue to focus on what needs to be done, the job at hand, and if we do that we're going to give ourselves a great chance to win. He gets on us when we're not doing our job and when we're not doing it to the capabilities that we're capable of doing it at, so that's when he's on us. And he stays on us."

Others were getting on Lue at the time of his Cavs promotion. He was accused of having a role in the downfall of Blatt, as some speculated that Lue's relationship with James was used to push Blatt out. The oft-cited smoking gun was a Vine of James, face contorted into a disgusted scowl, venting to Lue while sitting on the bench next to him late in the Cavs' blowout loss to the Golden State Warriors. In the clip, Lue simply stares straight ahead and nods in silent affirmation after something James says. Four days later, Blatt was fired.

"That was so stupid," Lue said when asked about the attention it received. "I don't why he would sit there. He was just talking about, 'We got to be ready to play at all times. Guys got to be ready, got to take it serious.' And the biggest thing he was talking about was, 'Do we continue to double Steph Curry and let guys do this or do we let Curry go for 50 and shut everybody else down?' So, it wasn't anything about Coach Blatt or me coaching."

But in the social media world where a Vine can be looped literally millions of times before any context is provided, perception can become stronger than reality.

"I have to block it out, the way things are right now," Lue said. "I told him he shouldn't sit beside me anyway. But he's done it before in the past when we get blown out. I think it was one game earlier this year he sat up there because the guys on the end of the bench were messing around and he didn't want to be part of that. But he's sitting there, you think he's going to talk bad about Coach Blatt and Jim Boylan is there, the trainer is right there?"

It wasn't the first instance during Lue's time in Cleveland where one moment in a game was picked apart ad nauseam. Late in Game 4 of the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinals, with the Cavs already trailing the Chicago Bulls in the series 2-1, Blatt started to signal for a timeout that his team didn't have. Lue, aware of the situation, pulled Blatt back toward the sideline before any referee noticed his request, which would have resulted in a technical foul on the Cavs.

For some, it showed that Blatt was not qualified to coach an NBA team as he still failed to grasp the league's rules, including timeout allotment. Lue shrugs off his involvement -- again it was those instincts -- but wonders why the same people who questioned his loyalty to Blatt don't recognize what he did for his former boss in that moment.

"My job as the associate head coach was to make sure the head coach has everything he needs," Lue said. "That's my job. Whatever he needs me to do and whatever I see fit to do to help the team win. So, that's what I did. If I wanted to take Coach Blatt's job, I would have just let him walk out there and call timeout. Like, why would I stop him?"

With absurd circumstances like those, it might seem like he's gone through everything imaginable in a season and a half in Cleveland, but he's really seen and done it all when you consider the totality of his career.

"He's like the uncle around the family that everybody goes to when they're in need of anything. That's just who he's been over the course of my career and I'm sure for a lot of other people's careers."
J.R. Smith on Tyronn Lue

Lue doesn't shy away from his star-studded path. Why should he? He's been teammates with the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Tracy McGrady, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Howard. He's been coached by Doc Rivers, Phil Jackson and both Van Gundy brothers.

Ryan West, director of player personnel for the Lakers and the son of Jerry West, invited Lue to stay at his Playa Vista, California, home this past offseason and saw Lue's basketball-molded mind in motion. The two are close in age and have known each other for nearly 20 years, from when Lue got his start with the Lakers. West's temporary roommate had a quirky habit: West would find Lue at all hours of the day or night scribbling plays in a notebook, trying to build up a basketball bible of his own after gleaning from the greats for so many years.

Even though Lue has fewer than 20 games under his belt as head coach, others already have strong opinions about his abilities.

"He's like the uncle around the family that everybody goes to when they're in need of anything," said J.R. Smith. "That's just who he's been over the course of my career and I'm sure for a lot of other people's careers. Just from trying to learn the game in one aspect and then learning the lifestyle and what it takes to put in the work every day."

When asked for Lue's best quality, Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford, who was an assistant when Lue was a player in both Houston and Orlando, said, "His natural leadership.

"He's obviously a very bright guy. He had a real good feel for the game as a point guard. And I'm sure, listen, he's got a ton of personality and he communicated effectively as a player with all of his teammates."

After Lue's first shootaround as head coach of the Cavs, James called Lue "very detailed."

"That helps a lot. A guy who played the game as well, so he's won a championship -- multiple championships -- so there's nothing that he hasn't seen. He's played for Phil Jackson, he's coached with Doc [Rivers], he's been all over, so he has experience. We put our trust in him now. We're going to give him whatever he needs. We've got to follow his lead."

Focus on the future

Life hasn't dramatically changed for Lue since he took over for Blatt -- he's still in the same city, still immersed in the same sport, still around the same team -- but it has sharpened his running internal monologue. There's always one thing on his mind.

"How can we get better?" Lue said, when asked what he thinks about. "You have to put your stamp on the team and whatever happens with the team, it's all on you ... It all falls on you."

Between now and the end of the regular season, Lue will be tasked with fending off Toronto in the East standings; finding a space for James, Irving and Love to not only coexist in but thrive in; simultaneously fold Channing Frye into the rotation; and oh, of course, that whole mandatory title run.

However, he is trying to avoid putting too much emphasis on the destination and have his guys lose sight of the journey.

"I want to win and I know I'm supposed to win, but I think the biggest thing for me is I have to do the best job I can do, but then also enjoy it," Lue said. "I just can't put the pressure on of winning a championship, winning a championship, because then I'd never be able to sleep."

His championship rings will remain in a safe deposit box in L.A. He's not going to break them out for show and tell before the playoffs.

The way Lue sees it, he's already won by making a living from the game of basketball. If only his team could think that way too, maybe they all could realize the opportunity in front of them and enjoy the challenge, rather than be burdened by it.

"I told those guys, the first speech I gave when we played the Bulls that night: 'The game has given me everything,'" Lue shared. "And if I had to die on the court, I would die on the court because the game of basketball has given me so much. Without basketball, I wouldn't be me. I don't know where I would be at."