OAKLAND, Calif. -- Doc Rivers was on the defensive following practice yesterday at The Arena, though purely in a basketball sense, which had nothing to do with the frustrations of Paul Pierce or the ongoing constructive criticism of Gary Payton.
Rivers expects Pierce and the rest of the Celtics to be frustrated by recent losses to the Kings and Warriors. He welcomes the observations of Payton. If Rivers had one complaint, it was that the Celtics are not as defensive-minded as he would like.
"Our offense is pretty good," said Rivers. "Our defense [stinks]. That's where we have to improve. Then, [we need to improve] offensive execution at the end [of games]. What you don't get is the reason it's tough at the end is because our defense has put us in a terrible position where every time down, you have to score. That's not where you should be. If we start getting stops in the first three quarters, we won't be in those positions. That's basically what we told them today.
"Our defense is losing games for us. We're putting so much pressure on a new offense that our offense can't take it."
In such a crucible, Pierce has seen his frustration, on a scale of 1-10, rise to a 10. Meanwhile, his temperature reached 104 degrees yesterday before he boarded the team bus to practice. Suffering from flu symptoms, Pierce was excused from the workout. Unless he recovers overnight, the Celtics will make a game-time decision about whether Pierce will play tonight against Portland. When the teams faced each other Nov. 10 at the FleetCenter, Pierce hit a 22-footer at the buzzer to give Boston a 90-88 win. Since then, the captain has come up short on a handful of occasions in the fourth quarter, forcing shots and prompting concerns about his struggles to fit in with the offense. When asked how much concern he had about the frustrations voiced by Pierce, Rivers said, "zero."
"You should be frustrated when you're losing," said Rivers. "Losing is no fun, especially losing games that we had a chance to win. Everyone is frustrated and upset and angry, whatever words you want to use. That's the way you should be. I'm not concerned by it. What we're doing here is the right thing. It's the right thing now and it's the right thing for the future of this team. Everyone wants to buy into it. At times, they have bought into it and at times they revert back. It's a learning process.
"I see great signs of us getting better, then I see days where we take a step backward. Those are the days, where as a coach, you get frustrated.
"It's not just Paul. Take your shot. When your shot's not there, move the ball. It's not that difficult, but it is when you're not used to doing that, when you're used to holding it and keep searching and keep searching."
Throughout the learning process, Rivers has remained patient with his players. He claims he can empathize with Pierce, Payton, and Ricky Davis, among others. He knows adjusting to a new system has not been easy for anyone.
"Paul can score 30 a night the way he plays right now, and so could Ricky," said Rivers. "But I don't know if we win playing that way. It actually is tougher in some ways for both of them and for the team, for the scoring guys. It's always easy [to say], `Just give me the ball and let me try to score.' It's just not an efficient way of scoring. So, that's where maybe making the extra pass and another cut is tougher to do. But in the long run, you'll find it will be easier to score. Right now, it's tougher because it's different."
In making those comments, Rivers echoed some of what Payton has said over the last week. Ever since Rivers benched Pierce for not running in the fourth quarter against Milwaukee Dec. 1, Payton has talked about how the Celtics' leading scorer must change his game. At the same time, Payton has maintained that by making adjustments Pierce will find it easier to score. Payton also continually advocates more ball movement, which is precisely the message Rivers wants repeated.
"Gary is correct in his assessments of everybody, for the most part," said Rivers. "Gary wants to win. So, we love it. I've always thought the best way for players to change is when players police players. I've always thought it was easy for the coach to say it. That's our job. You would hope it's their job to listen to it. I think they hear you. But I think it's better when players reinforce it. I don't know if they believe [Gary's] word all the time, but they listen to his word. When he says it and I say it, then [assistants] Tony Brown and Dave Wohl and Jim Brewer say it. You keep saying it. I think it will help and it will change."