Saturday May 9th, 2015

LOS ANGELES—Doc Rivers has two jobs with the Los Angeles Clippers, head coach and president of basketball operations, and he is widely respected at one of them. Rivers is a championship coach, beloved by players on his team and admired by those across the league, and his very presence gives the franchise credibility it has never enjoyed before. But in order to pry Rivers away from the Celtics two years ago, the Clippers gave him control of front-office decisions, and in that capacity he has not been nearly as renowned.

He gave up Eric Bledsoe in a deal that netted J.J. Redick. He let Darren Collison walk and handed $23 million to Spencer Hawes. This season he traded for his son, Austin, a move that was widely lampooned. The core that Rivers inherited—Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan—remained among the best in the league, but there was no reliable small forward, no consistent backup point guard, and no bench beyond Jamal Crawford. Clippers reserves, according to hoopstats.com, ranked 29th this season in offensive efficiency. The difference between the Clippers and the Warriors, for instance, was evident at the start of every second quarter. The Warriors were a team. The Clippers were three stars and a bunch of spare parts. Think Hedo Turkoglu and Dahntay Jones.

[daily_cut.NBA]Rivers pleaded for patience and insisted his acquisitions would show up when needed. On a stunning Friday night at Staples Center, they did. The Clippers manhandled the Rockets in Game 3, 124–99, and served up a slice of vindication for a decorated coach who doubles as an embattled GM. If you looked closely—at Redick scoring a game-high 31 points, at Austin pouring in 25, at Hawes relieving Griffin on both ends—you could make out a fully formed squad capable of doing more than winning this series.

The Rockets, thus far, do not appear to be a threat. The Clippers took one game in Houston, and almost a second, without Paul. Even though Paul returned Friday, he was limited by his strained hamstring. Griffin found himself in early foul trouble. Jordan made just two baskets. None of that mattered. The Clippers extended leads with the unit that so often gives it up. Late in the third quarter, the Clippers embarked on a 23-0 run, as Austin scored 15 points in less than five minutes. Fans who have questioned his value chanted his name.        

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The most vocal supporter may have been Paul. When he arrived in L.A. four years ago, his understudies included Chauncey Billups, Mo Williams, and Bledsoe. Slowly, the ranks thinned. Paul re-signed in 2013, inspired by the hiring of Rivers, and put his prime in the coach’s hands. But the supporting cast dwindled further. In Game 3, help surfaced, when Paul needed it most. Thanks to Austin’s emergence, he was able to sit on the bench and protect his uncertain hamstring.

“I don’t want to play any more if I don’t have to,” he joked. The Clippers only required 23 minutes from Paul and 30 from Griffin, crucial when considering the burdensome workload they carried in the first round against the Spurs. On Friday morning, Rivers told his assistants, “I have a gut. I’m going to play Spencer. I have no idea why.” Hawes, signed in the summer as a stretch four, has been a disappointment. But the Clippers can’t feasibly make a Finals run with seven guys. They need players like Hawes to do what he did against Houston, logging 11 minutes, spacing the floor, sustaining the run. 

If the Rockets cannot stop the lineup with Rivers, Hawes, Redick and Glen "Big Baby" Davis, they have no hope. After finishing with the second-best record in the Western Conference, on the strength of a revamped defense and a rejuvenated James Harden, they again failed to slow the Clippers or unhinge Harden. He didn’t make it to the free-throw line, his sweetest spot, until the third quarter. Dwight Howard didn’t score after halftime. The combination of Redick, who guards Harden, and Jordan, who protects the rim, continued to flummox Houston. “We let go of the rope,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale, “and they piled on us.”

The final points, appropriately enough, were recorded by the 36-year-old Turkoglu. But the star of the night was the 22-year-old Rivers, a lottery pick three years ago, who struggled in New Orleans and was shipped to L.A. as part of a three-team trade in January. Players wondered what the dynamic would be like, a father coaching his son, and at times it has seemed awkward. Doc has been tough on Austin, and when asked if he takes any pleasure in his son’s success, he says: “They’re all my sons.”   

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But in the third quarter, when Austin was in the midst of his barrage—sinking tough runners and transition threes, attacking the basket and mimicking Harden’s stir-the-pot celebration—Paul approached the Clippers coach. “This is one time,” he said, “you can be a dad.”

Doc may savor the memory of Game 3, but not just as a father. As a GM.

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