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Rivers: rave reviews

Celtics are delighted with 'players' coach'

WALTHAM -- Gary Payton and Paul Pierce decided the Celtics should start practice at noon yesterday. On the surface, it may appear a small concession from coach Doc Rivers, a sign that he feels comfortable enough in his new role to cede a technically insignificant amount of control. Symbolically, it reinforces the notion of the Celtics as a democracy with discretion under Rivers. The coach hopes an approach that gives players a voice and keeps the lines of communication open will foster better team chemistry and trust, as well as an effective learning environment.

While in Burlington, Vt., Rivers and the players spent time evaluating each other and forming first impressions. Early returns indicate the open-minded, inclusive coaching strategy employed by Rivers is working. One week into training camp, the Celtics have clearly taken to Rivers, at least before he must make tough decisions about the starting lineup and playing time.

"Doc is a players' coach, man," said Pierce. "The guys really enjoy being around him. They accepted him from Day 1. Doc understands what being in the NBA is all about. He understands the coach's side. He understands the players' side. That's why it's easy for players to familiarize themselves with him and be comfortable with him."

Added Payton: "He's a great coach because he teaches you the way you're supposed to be taught. He's been a basketball player. So he understands how guys are. He knows what to do with the young guys. He knows what to do with the veterans. He's really a coach that you can work with and talk to. He always says his doors are wide open. If you don't have a coach that listens to you, it's very hard. It makes the whole job difficult. It makes your life difficult because you're going to be clashing with each other."

Rivers proved one of Payton's points yesterday when he allowed the veteran point guard to watch the team run through plays at the end of practice. Payton doesn't need the repetition, but Marcus Banks and Delonte West do.

Many players believe Rivers's 13 years in the NBA as a player for the Hawks, Clippers, Knicks, and Spurs makes a big difference. A former NBA player has not coached the Celtics since M.L. Carr guided the team from the sidelines for two seasons (1995-97).

The players believe Rivers possesses a better understanding about when to push them and when to back off, and how to make practices fun because he once competed in the league.

The Celtics call Rivers a "players' coach," but he does not assign himself any such label. In fact, Rivers prefers not to define his style, believing it's merely a matter of perception that changes daily. Players may like Rivers and his style when they get a day off. They may hate him and his style when practice stretches beyond three hours as it did yesterday, with the Celtics preparing for their first exhibition game against the Chicago Bulls tonight in Manchester, N.H.

"I just try to be consistent as far as being honest with them every day, but other than that I don't know [my style]," said Rivers. "I bet most of the guys would say I'm a `players' coach,' then the other half wouldn't. Usually, it's the seven playing that call you a `players' coach.' "

But from Pierce and Payton to the bench players, the Celtics agree that Rivers not only communicates well, but intuitively understands how to make workouts both fun and educational. While practices contain plenty of repetitive drill work and yesterday featured a 40-minute film session, Rivers likes the "learn by doing" approach with plenty of scrimmaging. So far, Rivers has managed to keep the Celtics engaged, more than once relying on friendly bets to keep shooting drills and the other more tedious parts of practice interesting and competitive.

"He explains the game all the way around," said Banks. "He'll tell you, you need to make a harder cut this way, then he'll tell you the reason why you need to do that is because you can get yourself a shot or you can get this guy open or that guy open. It's fun because he laughs, he jokes, he makes bets. It's easier to relate to a coach that played the game who understands situations. He knows the passion of a player."

But it's not all fun and games as the Celtics found out yesterday during what Rivers called a "tough mental practice."

"Because he was a successful player for such a long time, he understands very well what the players are going through," said Jiri Welsch, whose X-rays on his sprained right wrist were negative and he will play tonight. "He's not trying to kid us. For example, [yesterday] in practice, things started to fall apart, guys started to talk to each other about some things. He jumped right in, even though I hadn't heard him increase his voice the whole [first] week. He put us right back on track. He said, `Hey, guys, this is not what we're going to do. Let's put it to bed. Stop talking and let's play basketball.' He has a good sense to do the right thing at the right moment."

There will come a time this season when it will be Pierce doing the yelling, and hopefully the right thing at the right moment, as a substitute coach. Rivers plans to let Pierce conduct practice one day, another show of democracy by discretion and trust, as well as a creative teaching approach.

"I've told Paul he's going to have to script the whole thing and do it," said Rivers. "I just do that because I've always thought that teaching actually teaches you more than the other guys. [The other day], the rookies taught the inbounds play. We brought them in early. We taught them the inbounds play first, then they showed the vets. It was great. They didn't mess up, which we had bets on. It's good for them. It's good for us and it's good for the team."

By allowing Pierce and the rookies to coach on occasion, Rivers illustrates the fact that he wants the players to take responsibility for the Celtics' fortunes this season. It also shows that Rivers believes in treating his players like adults. For that reason, Rivers does not plan to officially name captains, commenting that it's not his job to dictate who should lead the team. But unofficially, he considers Pierce and Payton the Celtics co-captains.

"Right now, everything's cool," said Mark Blount. "It's like a first date. No touching. No kissing. You know how it goes, when you're old-fashioned. I have nothing to complain about his style. He and his staff do a great job of coaching, but not overcoaching." 

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