Even Celtics owner Stephen Pagliuca had to wonder what was up.
The Celtics led by one with 3.4 seconds left in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Sixers. They needed to inbound the ball, but the player inbounding wasn’t Rajon Rondo. It was Paul Pierce, the team’s best free throw shooter under pressure. If Rondo got caught, there was the chance he could miss one or both.
But Doc Rivers had other ideas.
Pierce led Rondo with a pass from the sideline at midcourt toward the timeline. Rondo took the ball, raced from the Sixers and ran out of the clock. Game over.
“People were saying, ‘Why is Rondo out there? Why is Rondo out there? Why are they throwing the ball into Rondo?’ Well, [Rivers] had a trick play up his sleeve. Get the ball, run away and run out the clock,” Pagliuca told WEEI.com before Game 2 against Philadelphia Monday night.
“One of the media in the hallway heard me talking in the hallway talking to a friend of mine. I have to learn I can’t talk in the hallway. But for one of these games, I was saying, ‘Doc is a genius.’ If had to be overheard, that was probably a good time,” Pagliuca continued.
“He really has done great when it comes to on-court management. But more importantly, he has got the guys playing together like a real unit. We have great talent on this team, but they’re playing together so well that they’re beating a lot of teams that have incredible athletes.”
On Monday, Rivers was honored with the Rudy Tomjanovich Award, given annually by the Professional Basketball Writers of America to the most media-friendly and accessible coach in the league. Rivers, a former TV analyst, beat out the likes of Denver’s George Karl, Orlando’s Stan Van Gundy and Dallas' Rick Carlisle.
But understand this: Rivers isn’t just a nice guy. He’s the best guy for Celtics.
Like Red Auerbach in the 1950s and '60s and K.C. Jones in 1984 and '86, Rivers is the perfect fit for what the Celtics need. Red had 90 playoffs wins, a Celtics record. Jones is second at 65. Doc has 52 and counting.
Who else could’ve done with the Celtics this year what Rivers did? The team was on the verge of crumbling after Rondo’s self-destructive ball toss in Detroit, the move that cost the Celtics their starting point guard for two games. The Celtics were slipping into oblivion and their second-round opponent -- Philadelphia -- was running away with the division.
He lost Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox to heart ailments. He lost Jermaine O’Neal to a bad wrist. He had to work through the sore heel of Paul Pierce early, the knees of Mickael Pietrus in the middle of the season and injuries to Avery Bradley, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen late. But still, his team went from 15-17 to 39-27 and a division title.
“This year, Doc has taken a shortened season -- a compressed season -- and a new cast of characters, a bunch of injuries, and he’s turned this into a team that’s at least in the second round,” owner Wyc Grousbeck told WEEI.com. “He’s taken players like Ryan Hollins, Brandon Bass, Mickael Pietrus, who are obviously good players, but he’s turned them into Celtics, and [fit] them into the system. And so, to take a player of great talent and then make them into part of a really very good team takes an extra special coach. And that’s what we have in Doc.”
More than a few eyebrows were raised last spring when Grousbeck and Pagliuca announced they were extending Doc Rivers as Celtics coach for five years. But Rivers responded with four simple words after the Game 5 loss to the Heat last spring, in announcing he would be coming back to Boston -- “I am a Celtic” -- if Pagliuca and Grousbeck would have him.
They would. Those words sold Grousbeck and Pagliuca on Rivers as the long-term man in charge on the court, well beyond the viable years of the Big Three of Pierce, Garnett and Allen.
“The first day I met him I thought he was the leader I would follow if I were a player,” Grousbeck said of Rivers. “I feel that even more so now. So, it’s more that I still feel that way. I think he’s given everything he’s got to Boston and the Celtics. I didn’t know if he would love it here. I didn’t how it would translate, with his kids coming through high school and college. He bleeds green. He’s a Celtic.
“I just think he’s a born leader,” Pagliuca added. “He’s both empathetic to players but also straightforward. He has no nonsense about him. He tells them what he thinks. He’s developed, probably more than any coach I’ve seen, the trust of the players. He played on the big stage, he’s been a player, a commentator, he’s been in the game his entire life, and they respect that.
“And he’s a winner.”
Rivers was hired in 2004 and got the team to the playoffs in his first year. But then, things went south quickly, capped off by the 24-win season in 2007, featuring the worst losing streak in franchise history -- 18 games.
But Rivers’ temperament never changed. Pagliuca was paying close attention the whole time.
“I think we knew he was a great coach, but he’s also a great human being and very resilient,” Pagliuca said. “So, even in the darkest days, they should’ve had signs ‘Fire the ownership, not the coach.’ But they had [Fire Doc] signs in the darkest days. We knew he was doing a great job coaching, developing our players, and getting the strategy in here, so we stuck with him, and he paid off with a championship.
“I think we learned he’s extremely resilient, he’s extremely single-mindedly focused on doing what’s best for the players and winning basketball games. The players pick up on that and we’ve had a very virtuous circle here.”
Of course, Rivers has shown better than any coach in Boston sports that he can handle personality after personality in the locker room, motivate them and get them to perform. Who else could’ve taken Ray Allen aside at the trade deadline, telling him it looked like he had been dealt to Memphis only to find out the bottom fell out in the deal? It was Doc who had to repair that one.
“Number one, first and foremost, as a person and a leader, he brings out the best in people,” Pagliuca said. “With a 66-game season this year, with a lot of back-to-backs, people don’t realize how tough it is in the NBA to play one game, another game and this year. [Three] games in a row. But our team has always played hard the entire time Doc has been here.
“We’ve never had a team that hasn’t played hard. So, that leadership quality really differentiates him from many of the great coaches out there. He’s one of the greatest because they’re playing so hard.
“I think this year’s team really embodies that theme, ‘I am a Celtic,’ because -- by all accounts -- they’re overachieving,” Pagliuca said. “We’ve got some players in the latter stages of their career. I wouldn’t call them old, but they’re certainly in the latter stages of their career, and they’re outplaying many younger, athletic teams because they’re playing team basketball. ‘Ubuntu’ has kind of seeped back into the culture. We couldn’t be more pleased. We never had a doubt that was the right thing to do. Our experience, both Wyc and I, from venture capital is if you have great managers, you stick with them. He’s a great coach.”
Added Grousbeck: “Doc’s one of the best few coaches in the league or in the world. We’re very glad to have him here. We’re glad he decided to stay.”
Indeed, Rivers’ reputation is so highly regarded in the basketball world, he could be handed the reigns to the most prestigious job every four years -- coach of Team USA at the 2016 Olympics, which could coincide with the final year of his current contract extension.
“So many people lose sight of the fact that at the end of the day, the continuity of our coach and our system really helps,” Pagliuca said. “So, ‘I am a Celtic’ is a true thing. If you have a guy there seven years, eight years, and we’ll have him here 13 or even more years, it really adds continuity to the program. It gives us a focus and is really, really good.”
We went to the Trags Bag and threw this one out there: All things considered, is Doc Rivers the best coach in the NBA right now? And where does he rank among all-time great Celtics coaches?
@FramCire Celtics go to finals and this is stone. Otherwise up for debate RT @Trags: “Doc Rivers is the best coach in the #NBA” #TragsBag #Celtics
@PORJIE05 as far as today’s coaches I put him behind popovich. As far as Celtics coaches go, I can’t even pick.
@PakkAttackk 2nd best in NBA to Poppovich. All time Celtics wise, I’ll judge that when he’s done coaching. Best case scenario, 2nd place to Red.
@Farmstrong27 great coach, wouldn’t want anyone else .... but he’s got 3 HOFers and one of the best PGs that sees the court.
@GeofFromTheRose With [Miami losing Game 2 at home] in hand, Doc >>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Erik Spoelstra.
@Monaghan21 I don’t think there’s another coach in the #NBA who could have done more with this year’s #Celtics than Doc.