Two months ago, after the Celtics had put on yet another dispiriting performance in front of the home folks — against the Washington Wizards, no less — Doc Rivers told it like it was.
“If we make a run in the playoffs, will you forget it?” Rivers said. “That’s my question. If we don’t, then it’s probably who we were all year — an inconsistent team — at least in the second half of the year. We’ll find that out.”
Sure, Doc. Whatever. If you can take this broken-down collection of aging veterans and craft a rotation out of that mishmash of a bench, then deal — we’ll forget all about the home record, the Nets and the fourth-quarter collapses. Good luck with all that.
Night after night Rivers took the hits, defending them when they were indefensible and always repeating the mantra, “I like my team.”
But here was the definitive all-in moment and he wasn’t bluffing. As we know now, he also had a plan whose goal wasn’t winning games or higher playoff seeding but getting healthy.
It was a good plan, maybe the only plan, but we also know something else. That Rivers not only got his team in a position to compete, but he has also put on a coaching clinic during the postseason and should be regarded among the best at what he does in his chosen profession.
“I’m going to put him right up there,” Paul Pierce said before the team departed for Los Angeles. “This is the only coach I ever want to play for again. You have to put him up there with the top five coaches. Phil [Jackson], [Gregg] Popovich … I put Doc right up there.”
There are four basic elements to coaching in the NBA: dealing with players, dealing with the media, having a long-range plan and managing in-game situations. All are important to varying degrees and many a coach has lost his gig by simply having one leg of the chair kicked out from underneath him.
On the players, there is no question that the veterans respect him and, as he says, “allow him to coach them.” They bought into each other right from jump, and that’s no small thing.
But it’s been Rivers work with Rajon Rondo that has really shone through this season. Rivers is toughest on young players, and it stands to reason that he would be absolutely murder on Rondo.
After a tumultuous summer that saw Rivers, and Danny Ainge, air some of their grievances on this radio station, an interesting thing began to happen all the way back in training camp that underscored a changing dynamic.
Rivers was asked about Rondo’s penchant for gambling on defense.
“He has such a great innate ability to read things before they’re there, so you do have to give him some latitude,” Rivers said at the time. “But if you want to be a great team defender do that, plus do all the other things. When you do go for steals you never put your team in harm’s way, and I think Rondo has done a terrific job with that.”
Rivers not only didn’t criticize when given the chance, he also announced that he was giving Rondo creative license to use his mathematical mind to calculate decisions and use the angles that only he sees.
Another coach would have yanked him the moment one of his jaw-dropping passes made it into the third row, but Rivers gave him even more control. Rondo runs the offense to such a degree that Rivers has called him the Celtics version of Jason Varitek. He also grants him the freedom to do his thing on defense.
That’s a coaching decision and it may have been the most important one he made all season because Rondo has gone from quirky X-factor to bona-fide superstar.
Rivers also kept an even-keel when things were at their lowest.
“You play for coaches when things aren’t going right, the practices get harder, the yelling gets louder,” Pierce said. “Doc is a cool customer. He didn’t panic. He didn’t get louder, he just stuck with the game plan. You never saw that with Doc. He always stayed positive and encouraged us even when things weren’t going well. I think that was big for us.”
It’s an underrated part of the job, but Rivers is also a great communicator with the media. Not only does he answer every one’s questions, which tends to take some heat off his team in general and his players specifically, he also has a way of staying on message. He has set the tone for each series before they began with what can basically be called narratives.
What was said: Dwyane Wade sure is a great player, he’ll probably get his 30. What was unsaid: Let’s see if the rest of them can beat us.
What was said: You know they’re not the Eastern Conference champs, right? What was unsaid: You haven’t proven anything to us.
They still haven’t.
What was said: Great team, so great that no one’s put and hand on them yet. What was unsaid: We’re coming to kick your ass and we don’t think you can handle it.
Now, we’re heading into the Lakers series and Rivers has been saying that the thing that concerns him the most is their length and offensive rebounding. The Celtics are big, but they’re not that big. And the only way to keep the likes of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum from playing volleyball with missed shots is to keep them away from the basket.
“We’re going to be us,” he said. “That’s physical and that’s what were going to do.”
Subtlety has a way of going over the cliff once we reach this point — and that was about as subtle as a Kendrick Perkins forearm. But why hide it?
There’s a method to all that, mainly to alert the refs about what they’re going to see, but it also has a way of simplifying for his team what can become a shifting set of adjustments and concerns.
This is where Rivers has truly excelled, by making big-picture tactical decisions and sticking with them. Against the Cavs, he locked in on Kevin Garnett and practically demanded that Garnett run the game from the low post. Against the Magic, it was Pierce and Ray Allen.
Defensively, he and Tom Thibodeau have put his players on an island against the best in the game and not allowed the complimentary players to beat them. There’s a whole bunch of other things that go into that, but the rough outline of the gameplan doesn’t need a three-ring binder.
The capital-A “Adjustments” have all come from the other side. Whether it was Mike Brown grasping at rotation straws or Stan Van Gundy preemptively flopping Matt Barnes and Vince Carter, Rivers has stayed constant and consistent which is exactly what his team needs.
He has simplified the big picture into bite-size pieces and now allowed the Celtics to get ahead of themselves, as they did occasionally in 2008. The one time they got caught looking ahead, they were blown out in Game 3 of the Cavaliers series, which was probably as good a coaching method as he could have come up with on his own.
But in the aftermath, Rivers didn’t panic.
That isn’t to say that he hasn’t experimented at times. And here, Rivers is on a roll like Terry Francona in 2007. Not everything has worked out perfectly, but enough things have and the important dimension to all this is that his decisions made in the heat of the moment have a definitive logic to them.
The eight-man rotation has worked beautifully. His substitutions have managed his players’ foul troubles. His timeouts have killed runs and put them back on the same page. Even the desperation moves, like rolling out Nate Robinson when Rondo fell on his back in Game 6 of the Magic series, have been successful.
Is that luck, or is there something to be said for a coach, and a player, not giving up on each other and being ready when the time’s called?
There was a feeling at the beginning of the playoffs that Rivers’ time in Boston may be coming to an end, that he has taken them as far as they can go together. That has yet to be resolved, although it’s clear that he still had something left to bring out of his team.
Maybe that will sway him to stay, maybe it won’t. He will undoubtedly have offers from television and we know that his family will play a large role in his decision. If he does decide to take a year off from coaching he will be able to name his price and his situation.
It also hasn’t been a distraction and that also speaks to the tunnel vision he and the Celtics have had during this run.
“I haven’t really thought about that,” Pierce said. “Are they concerned that I might leave?” He was joking when he said that, but then he got serious. “That stuff is for after the season. Right now we’re worried about winning a championship.”
Thinking back to that April night it seems rather incredible, but here they are. So, to answer a question: No, Doc. We haven’t forgotten. But that just makes this run all the more special and the coaching job look all the more better.