Orlando didn’t provide the coaching experience Rivers had dreamed of, but he has been the solidifying presence behind a franchise reawakening in Boston
LOS ANGELES — For about four years and 11 games, Doc Rivers could be mistaken for one of those coaches who relied too heavily on his reputation from his playing days, strutting along the sideline in $2,000 suits, looking more 40-plus model than NBA strategist.
That wasn’t the reality, though. Rivers’s tenure in Orlando included myriad challenges and he worked feverishly to change the fortunes of an organization that never quite recovered from the free agent departure of Shaquille O’Neal and the injury-plagued final years of Penny Hardaway.
The Magic advanced to the playoffs in three of Rivers’s four full seasons, but he was known more for his fancy clothes and engaging personality. He wanted to be more than Sam Mitchell or Terry Porter or Isiah Thomas. He wanted to be a respected head coach and win championships.
The Magic dismissed him in November 2003 after a 1-10 start. It was unfair. Grant Hill couldn’t stay healthy. Shawn Kemp and Jacque Vaughn were starters in his final full season, and Tracy McGrady was more into piling up points than wins.
Those days seem almost inconceivable considering Rivers’s accomplishments in Boston. When Danny Ainge hired Rivers five months after that Orlando debacle, he was banking that Rivers would tutor the Celtics’ talented but youthful cornerstones and also improve as a tactician.
That process took a few years, even as the roster kept getting younger. Then Ainge got the OK to add payroll, acquiring All-Star veterans Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. For the first time in his career, Rivers was coaching youth and talent.
One championship and three postseason appearances later, Rivers has put himself among the top coaches in the league, joining the Lakers’ Phil Jackson and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.
And while Rivers received his share of accolades in 2008 for leading Boston to its first championship in 22 years, he may have executed his finest coaching job this season, overseeing an injured and aging roster while fostering the expeditious growth of Rajon Rondo.
A team that most experts considered to be past its championship window is on the verge of a second title in three seasons, and Rivers is being lavished with the respect he sought for years.
“It’s everything to this ball club,’’ forward Paul Pierce said of Rivers’s guidance. “You can see at times when you are playing for coaches and things aren’t going well, the practices get harder, the yelling gets louder, and Doc is a cool customer.
“He didn’t panic. He didn’t get louder. He just stuck with the game plan.
“A lot of times when you go through a stretch like we went through, losing five games out of six, seven out of 10, you can kind of tell with the coaches’ body language that things are going downhill. But you never really saw that with Doc. He came in and said, ‘All right, we are going to get back to work.’
“He stayed positive and encouraged us even though things weren’t going well for us, and that was big. He definitely took my career to the next level and you’ve got to put him up with the top five coaches.’’
In Orlando, he was fighting for recognition and respect. In Boston, an entire fan base wants him to stay and coach the Big Three until they fade into the darkness. Rivers said he will think about his future this summer, as he has done every summer the past few years. But there’s no question that the Celtics’ playoff run has encouraged him to return to what could be an equally talented team next year.
Not only have the Celtics thrived using the defensive system implemented by associate coach Tom Thibodeau, they have knocked out two Eastern Conference powers because Rivers managed the roster even more effectively than he did in 2008.
Learning from Hill’s injury perils in Orlando, Rivers sat Garnett for 10 games in January, forced Pierce to take time off after he played with one hand and on one leg in February, and even encouraged Rondo to take a night off to rest his hamstring.
He received his share of dirty looks and mumbles, even the occasional resentful response, but he ignored all that, realizing that preserving his delicate roster would prove beneficial in the long run.
He was not here to make friends, as in Orlando. He still never coaches a game without an immaculate suit and fresh haircut, but Rivers can look cool and be respected.
“We always said it was in us, but we struggled getting it out of us for most of the year,’’ Rivers said about his team, which went 27-27 to close the season. “We believed that it was in us and that’s why we were here.
“This is not intentional, what happened this regular season. We intended to have the best record in the East, best record in the NBA.
“When a team is making a run on you in the middle of the game and you have Kevin sitting on the bench and you know he should be back in, you are still sitting him. There is nothing smart about that at the time.
“It was very difficult. It was the right thing, but it was the only thing we had.’’
Although his players didn’t always agree with his decisions, Rivers had been right on so many previous occasions that they gave him the benefit of the doubt.
“It’s like a relationship you have with someone,’’ Rondo said. “We are on the same page. You continue to grow, and both ends are willing to listen and you get better and better.
“He’s still doing the same things. He’s on me in film sessions. He’s on me when I don’t play well.
“I’m not really surprised [by what he’s done]. Give him credit. He’s done a great job. He’s a great coach.’’
And his influence and success are not lost on opponents. During All-Star Weekend in 2008, Rivers and Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant conversed during a bus ride. Bryant is one of many non-Celtics who said they wouldn’t mind playing for Rivers, perhaps the ultimate compliment.
“I love Doc, and I love his personality and the relationship that he has with his players,’’ Bryant said yesterday. “He’s just a down-to-earth guy, just extremely sharp, prepares extremely well, and I think he’s the type of coach guys would love to play for.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.