The "Beat L.A.!" chants had been showering down like champagne as the five Celtics moved toward their bench with a 17-point cushion last Saturday against the visiting Orlando Magic. They were five minutes and 56 seconds away from earning another trip to the NBA Finals when they were intercepted at mid-court by coach
There and then he let them have it. They'd been mis-running a play in a way that Rivers could not abide any longer. You would have thought they'd wasted a 20-point advantage or at least surrendered the paint to
I'm going to raise a point shared by a friend who knows him well. Rivers was a point guard with four NBA teams over 13 seasons, including one as an All-Star. Because he is so well-received by players and outgoing with the public it is easy to assume he is a "players' coach." But that back-handed compliment couldn't be more farfetched. He is in fact a highly demanding boss who understands how to achieve those demands.
"Doc is sort of like an arbitrator, he keeps things in line,"
Where would Pierce be without Rivers? When the Celtics won the championship two years ago, Pierce embraced his coach and thanked him sincerely for helping a formerly self-indulgent scorer mature into a versatile Finals MVP.
Rivers' winning methods with Boston can be traced back to Orlando. Four seasons after he retired as a player, Rivers was hired to run the Magic in 1999 and was voted Coach of the Year as a rookie. He spent the next four years coaching
For someone who had never won a playoff series in eight years of coaching, Rivers knew what to do when the Celtics joined Pierce with
As much as Rivers leans on his experiences as a player, they do not define him. He is not a player who is now coaching. On the contrary -- and this distinction is crucial -- he is a coach who used to play. He has made friends with a number of life-time coaches, including
His understanding for people and his innate talent for relating to all comers enables him to apply his experiences as a player in constructive ways. No one has benefited more than
"It's tremendous, because [Rondo] can't look at Doc and assume he doesn't know what he's talking about," said Ray Allen. "Doc has that card in his pocket all the time -- 'I did what you did.' We've seen pictures of Doc -- there's a picture of him [as a player] in our locker room, there's video of him at the All-Star Game. As a player you don't look at him and say, 'You don't know what you're talking about.' Because you know he does."
Rivers will admit he has been hard on Rondo. "The first year he was the hardest," agreed Allen in reference to Rondo's initial championship season with the Big Three. "Obviously, it was because of Rondo being in the situation that was new to him, and Doc trying to get everybody on board with what he was doing. But he was critical on all of us. Now he lets Rondo do his thing, run the show, and he gives him a lot of leeway to go out there. He has to reel him in, like all of us at any point. But they're an extension of each other."
"Doc, he's one of the most up-front, in-your-face kind of coaches," said Garnett. "And to be a point guard for his team and be able to run the offense the way he wants to, says a lot for who [Rondo is] in running the team."
The ability to yell at players in a constructive and inspiring way is a rare attribute among NBA coaches, who fully understand they have little financial leverage over players with long-term, eight-figure contracts. And yet, the Celtics appeared adrift and unresponsive while going 27-27 over the final four months of the season. The truth has since emerged: Rivers was treating the second half of the season as an extended training camp aimed to rehabilitate Garnett and Pierce from knee injuries with limited game minutes and harder practices.
The faith he showed in his players during the season -- maintaining his belief in their championship potential even as they were losing badly at home to the Nets, Grizzlies and Wizards -- is paying off now. His relationships with the players and their desire to follow his instruction has enabled them -- now that Garnett and Pierce are healthy -- to renew their teamwork and timing more quickly than anyone could have imagined.
Whether he wins or loses this rematch against