Faith was never lost
Despite horrible 2006-07, Rivers and Celtics believed
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. - It was April 13, 2007. The Celtics finished the season with a 104-102 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks to lock up the second-worst record in the NBA and the second-most ping-pong ball combinations in the NBA draft lottery.
Rivers had endured a season full of criticism of his coaching credentials, second-guessing of his substitution patterns, and derogatory assessments of his X's and O's acumen, but he remained steadfast in his belief that he was a capable NBA coach.
"I know I know what I'm doing," said Rivers that night. "You just wait for the day when you have the tools to prove that. I was laughing with someone the other day. I said, 'How did [San Antonio Spurs coach] Gregg Popovich get Tim Duncan?' They had a terrible record and he was the coach. Could he coach that year or did he become a better coach all of a sudden?"
Rivers proved prescient. Given the tools, the much-maligned coach has led the Celtics from the lottery to one win from hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy as NBA champions. In his first NBA Finals, he's outcoached Lakers bench boss Phil Jackson. That was supposed to be the Lakers' biggest advantage in this series: The Zen Master, winner of nine NBA titles, against Rivers, who despite leading the Celtics to the Finals for the first time in 21 years, still had his doubters.
But in the Celtics' incredible, instant classic 97-91 comeback win in Game 4 Thursday night, in which they rallied from a 20-point third-quarter deficit and trailed by as many as 24, Rivers came up with the master move. He switched to a lineup of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and reserves Eddie House and James Posey. Garnett and the four shooters spread the floor, forced the Lakers to stop double-teaming, and closed the quarter on a 23-5 run to trim a 20-point Laker lead to 73-71.
"Well, that changed the course of the game, obviously," said Jackson. "They spread the floor with that lineup and put some pressure on us to have to match up on screen rolls and also have some 3-point shooters available, and they hit shots in the second half."
Rivers also listened to one of his players. At halftime, Pierce implored Rivers to let him cover Kobe Bryant in the second half. Rivers made the switch and Pierce contained Bryant.
"He knows the game better than anybody I've played with on this level," said Pierce.
Rivers, who has a 339-328 career coaching record in nine seasons, four in Boston, demurred when asked how it felt to have people declare he's outcoaching Jackson.
"I don't think it's true," he said. "I mean, Phil to me is the best coach, at least of my generation, to coach - him and Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich are the three best. I'm not in that class and don't deserve to be in that class. I ignore it.
"But last year was a tough year. It was a tough year for me as a coach. It was a tough year for our players, and [heck], I'm thankful that [general manager] Danny [Ainge] hung in there with me more than anything."
The truth is Rivers might have done one of the best coaching jobs of his career in 2006-07, even though the Celtics were 24-58. His best player, Pierce, missed 35 games because of an injury. Another veteran, Wally Szczerbiak, missed 50 games. Yet Rivers kept a young team from succumbing to infighting under the weight of all those losses. Those same leadership qualities helped him mold a championship-caliber team this season.
"He's probably one of the best motivators I've been around in a while," said Garnett. "He gives us hope through his words. And we believe it."
Yesterday, Celtics managing partner and CEO Wyc Grousbeck said he and his partners believed Rivers was the right man for the job all along.
"Doc had not been given a team ready to win," Grousbeck wrote in an e-mail. "He had been given a young team to develop. And that's just what he did. We stuck with both Danny and Doc because we knew they could get us here.
"Danny drafted Al [Jefferson], [Kendrick Perkins], [Rajon] Rondo, and Delonte [West], and Doc developed them so well that it led to the trades and now the Finals. Doc is a born leader and deserves to coach this team."
Now, the 16th coach in Celtics history is one win away from delivering the franchise its 17th title. Opinions of him may have changed, but his approach has not.
"At the end of the day, I'm coaching my team, and it doesn't matter if we're in the parking lot or Game 1 in the first round or Game 7 or 6 or 5 or 4 in the Finals. You're just coaching your team," said Rivers.
"There's clearly more attention paid to decision-making and all that, but it still doesn't waver what you do. You're going to do your job and do it the best that you can, and if it's good enough, great. If it's not, as long as you felt like you did your best, that's all you can do in these things."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.