PHOENIX — An emotional Ty Lue opened his news conference after the LA Clippers’ final loss of the season by thanking the fans, coaching staff, players, ownership, management and organization as a whole for the support they have given him as head coach the past three seasons.
After the Phoenix Suns eliminated the Clippers with a hard-fought 136-130 win Tuesday night to clinch the Western Conference first-round series, Lue repeatedly talked about his “whole three years here” in Los Angeles. This season was perhaps Lue’s most trying, both on and off the court, with injuries to his stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and deaths to seven family members.
Perhaps Lue was feeling emotional in the aftermath of the Clippers’ season coming to an end and his team scrapping to the final buzzer by cutting a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit to two twice in the final three minutes before finally losing to Phoenix. But after sounding reflective when speaking about his Clippers tenure, Lue was asked if he expects to return as the team’s coach after such a frustrating season filled with lingering uncertainty over the health and availability of his two stars.
“Yes, sir,” Lue responded.
Lue did not have George in the lineup since March 21 because of a sprained right knee. Then, after two dominant games to start the first-round series, Leonard was ruled out before Game 3 with a sprained right knee he suffered in Game 1 but played through in Game 2. Leonard did not play the rest of the series, and the Clippers lost four straight to the Suns.
Like the entire Clippers organization, Lue wondered what could have been had Leonard and George been healthy.
“I think the encouraging thing, with PG and Kawhi healthy, we haven’t lost a series yet,” Lue said. “It’s always in the back of your mind, ‘What if.’ It’s easy to say, ‘What if,’ because a lot of guys get hurt. It’s just been our luck the last three years.”
“If you look back to my first year taking over, we did some really good things,” Lue said of the 2020-21 season, when the Clippers went to the Western Conference finals but lost Leonard to a torn ACL in the second round. “Kawhi tears his ACL then he misses the whole next season …
“I think just taking some time and let our coaches get a break, let everybody get a break, reflect on the season, come back and just try to be better than we were this year.”
The Clippers had Leonard and George together on the floor only 38 times this season, going 24-14 in those games.
Lue said the addition of point guard Russell Westbrook during the All-Star break “really saved our season as far as making the playoffs.” Westbrook averaged 23.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 35.7% 3-point shooting in the series versus the Suns.
Westbrook signed a one-year deal, joining the Clippers on a veterans minimum. The point guard along with center Mason Plumlee are the team’s only free agents this summer. Due to the new collective bargaining agreement, the Clippers will have only the $3.8 million non-Bird exception to offer Westbrook, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks.
Westbrook, who likely increased his value on the free agent market as compared to what it was when he was with the Los Angeles Lakers prior to being traded to the Utah Jazz and being bought out of his deal, said he relished playing for the Clippers organization.
“You know what, this will be probably my first time actually in my career being able to make a decision,” Westbrook said of his future. “One thing I do tell you is that I love it here. I love the people, just the fans overall embracing not just me but my family and close friends. I know a lot of things have happened [this season], but I’m grateful. I definitely love being here.
“As far as making a decision, I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. I don’t really know my process because it’s kind of my first time doing this. So we’ll see what happens.”
Westbrook said his season “started off difficult” with the Lakers and that “personally, it’s been a roller coaster mentally, emotionally” for him and his family, including his children.
Westbrook said he gained peace of mind and that a weight was lifted once he was dealt.
“From that moment, mentally I was in a better place,” he said of being traded.
Westbrook said he hopes to get a full season with a healthy Leonard and George.
“We only have one goal, and that will be winning a championship,” Westbrook said. “I think we have all the intangibles to be able to do so offensively and defensively. We can guard anybody when we’re all healthy and have a team full of healthy guys. I think we all understand that. I hope [Kawhi] and P understand that, as well.”