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 Doc Rivers.
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 Dwight Howard considering the tantrum their coach was throwing at them. There in full view was the dynamic that has reunited the Celtics just in time: The players all gathered around Rivers in silence, accepting his criticism and not one rolling of the eyes or scoffing at his anger, even after he had dismissed them toward their bench for the remainder of the timeout.
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," Paul Pierce said last month. "He's the greatest coach for this team, for the strong personalities. He knows when to go hard on us; he knows when to ease back on us. He makes a perfect complement."
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 Tracy McGrady, who for many reasons was never able to channel his enormous talent. After Rivers was fired in 2003 after a 1-10 start, freeing him to sign with Boston the following year, he focused on marshalling Pierce's diverse skills by demanding that he not only push the ball in transition but share it more often with teammates. Pierce objected, the two of them had it out -- again in full view -- without any appearance that Rivers was taking those complaints personally, and within three years Pierce was celebrating a championship as captain of the Celtics thanks to the alliance he formed with Rivers.
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 Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in 2007. The day Garnett arrived in Boston that August following the completion of his trade, Rivers gathered the three stars in an otherwise empty locker room and began preparing them to each change his style to accommodate the others and the goals of the team. The following month, on the eve of their pre-season trip to Rome for a pair of exhibition games, Rivers arranged for the Garnett, Allen and Pierce to join him on a private Duck Tour of Boston, which would take them along the route they would travel as NBA Champions nine months later. As they rode past the historical sites, they heard Rivers preaching to them the team goals that would layer the sidewalks with tens of thousands of celebrating fans.
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 Dean Smith and Larry Brown, whom Rivers tried to hire as a lead assistant for 2007-08. An insecure coach would not have dared make that offer, or enabled Tom Thibodeau -- who took the job after Brown turned it down -- to serve as a de facto head coach on defense, standing on the sideline and shouting orders on his side of the ball. The coaching staff is stronger as a result, and Rivers appears to have no problem sharing the credit.
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 Rajon Rondo, whose learning curve has been escalated by a coach who knows first-hand every trick of the position.
"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 Phil Jackson, Rivers will face his annual summer decision of whether to return for another season in Boston, or to move back home full-time to Orlando and watch three of his children finish their senior years in college and high school. When outsiders try to imagine his next move, two dimensions should be considered in full: Rivers is a coach through-and-through, and his players -- the Celtics' stars in particular -- will be asking him to come back.