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Change will be spare

Rivers sees no need for anything drastic

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / March 3, 2010

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - The realist in Doc Rivers tells him the Celtics can’t continue this way. The stubborn, traditional coach who led a downtrodden franchise to its first title in 22 years says that change is for amateurs, those who never have played nor coached in the NBA.

Rivers is at a crossroads as the Celtics enter a critical stretch of the season. They are almost assured of one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference - barring a total collapse - and the first-round playoff opponent should be favorable.

It’s the second round that has the entire organization worried. The Celtics are 2-8 against Cleveland, Atlanta, and Orlando.

For the first time in his Boston tenure, Rivers is faced with the possibility that his team is too old and too content to compete. But he refuses to believe such assertions, and the past two days did nothing to change his coaching philosophy.

“If you have a team that is ‘supposed to win a title’ or is in the running to win one, and if you’re not playing great at any point, then you’re going to be questioned,’’ he said. “As a group, that doesn’t change. This year, something is wrong with our team and it is because we’re not winning.’’

The lackadaisical attitude during Saturday’s demoralizing loss to New Jersey was disconcerting to Rivers, but he insists on taking the responsibility himself for the actions of the players. Perhaps a major shakeup would inspire his bunch, but he is depending on their personal pride and talent. Last night’s 105-100 victory over the Pistons was a good first step.

“I think that’s what all the guys who never played and coached think: ‘Let’s make a change!’ ’’ said Rivers. “It’s been proven, the more you stay the same, the better you get.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve said it, but as a staff, you do it every game. What can we do different? You always look at that stuff. We have had a lot of minor tweaks, we just don’t think we need to do major ones.’’

So those looking for Rivers to turn into Bobby Knight or Pat Riley will be greatly disappointed. If the Celtics continue to decline, Rivers will go down with the ship, his way.

He is a man of convictions, of great confidence, and his players’ style has worked well during his tenure here.

He has been here long enough to understand that a two-game losing streak means panic, and he has no intention of getting caught in the hysteria and making wholesale changes.

The numbers show that the Celtics, although flawed, are hardly a lost cause. They entered last night three games back of Orlando for the No. 2 seed, with a favorable schedule down the stretch.

There can be no more letdowns against pathetic teams such as the Nets, and the execution and chemistry have to improve.

But they are only a winning streak away from putting themselves in position to face the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals.

So Rivers is rather defiant when asked about his team’s issues. He believes they are curable. The key is not allowing that outside panic to infiltrate the locker room.

“Players in general, when they lose, there’s always some doubt,’’ Rivers said. “I’ve always thought that. ‘Maybe we should do something different. Maybe we should do this.’

“The veteran players are more the guys who think you’ve got to stick it through, you’ve got to mentally fight your way through. I think it’s more the younger guys on teams that have always thought change. That’s the first thing. And that rarely works because then you’re changing every game.’’

His stubbornness is evident. Rivers, in the middle of a troubled season, is not going to say that he has erred through the first 57 games, especially when the Celtics have been besieged with injuries.

His faith remains strong, and not even a loss to the 6-53 Nets will alter that.

What’s more, Rivers didn’t flinch after the New Jersey loss. He was disappointed but he ignored the media swell battering his struggling club.

“I know what this team looks like when we’re a good team,’’ he said. “We’re closer than a lot of people think we are.

“[New Jersey] was just another loss for me. Literally, if we would have lost to San Antonio or the Lakers, it’s still a loss. That stuff doesn’t bother me at all.

“When you lose to a team with a bad record, they are going to kill your team - let them have fun - but at the end of the day, it’s going to be about making the playoffs.

“If we win a title this year, you think that Jersey loss means anything?’’

In the end, Rivers said the onus of motivating his players, however veteran and savvy they are, is on him. He bears the responsibility for the fate of his team, and it is an obligation he will not avoid.

“It’s on me,’’ he said.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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