Austin Rivers' Development Adds to Rockets Finals Hopes

Michael Shapiro

For a player who is just 28, Austin Rivers carries himself with the attitude akin to the league's most savvy veterans. And it's no mystery as to why Rivers is wise beyond his years.

Rivers became a familiar face in the basketball consciousness far before he joined the Rockets last season. He was drafted by New Orleans with the No. 10 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, entering the league following a strong freshman season at Duke. Rivers hit a game-winner over North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2012. One year prior, he was a high school mixtape sensation and the No. 3 recruit in the country. Rivers is no stranger to the spotlight. 

The wisdom that Rivers has deftly displayed with the Rockets wasn't always evident early in his NBA career. His Clippers tenure saw bouts of inconsistency–though he did log 59 starts in 2017-18–and he was quickly dealt from Washington after a frustrating 29 games in 2018-19. Rivers is confident in his scoring and playmaking ability, and rightly so. He was a leading preps player and an All-ACC talent at Duke. He's shown the ability to lead offenses in short stretches. But as he noted after Sunday night's 41-point eruption, filling his role in Houston has become more important than flashing his scoring potential. Rivers' buy-in is critical to the Rockets' Finals hopes.

"I believe I'm a premier scorer, but I'm on a team where that's not required of me every night," Rivers said after Sunday's win over Sacramento. "I play with the best scorer in the NBA, so you've got to play a role and buy in."

Rivers didn't have to take a back seat to anyone on Sunday night. He played 33 minutes and took 20 shots with Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon out of the lineup, forming a new dynamic duo alongside James Harden. Rivers banged home six threes and torched Sacramento in transition, backing up his bravado as a "premier scorer." And Rivers' career night wasn't solely fueled by his own self-confidence. Rivers noted consistent encouragement from Harden and Westbrook throughout the contest. With two of Houston's top scorers out of the lineup, Rivers was empowered to take the reins.

"When you have a guy like James Harden telling you to go and Russell Westbrook telling you to go and that no one can stop you, that's coming from two of the best players in the NBA," Rivers said postgame. "I don't know what else you need."

41 points is certainly an outlier for Rivers, especially given his place in Houston's rotation. Westbrook and Gordon will likely return to the floor in at least one of the next three seeding games, and Rivers will be relegated to his usual spot in Mike D'Antoni's rotation. But Rivers can still provide a similar impact in limited minutes, even without the sustained volume. 

Rivers is shooting 43.6% from three since returning from a thumb injury in late January, and while that could be a product of small sample size, Rivers' three-point shot is just a facet of his overall value. The Duke product is a dynamic fast-break threat, and he can break down the defense off the dribble in the half-court. Yet Rivers' greatest skill is likely on the defensive end. He's Houston's most effective on-ball defender against opposing point guards, and his active hands help fuel Houston's suddenly-elite turnover generation. After a serious midseason lull, Rivers has bounced back as a critical piece of Houston's roster.

"When [Rivers'] time comes and he’s on the court, defensively he has to be as solid as he can, and offensively when he gets opportunities to basically do what he did tonight," Harden said postgame. "That’s going to help our team as a whole.”

It's been a bit of a rocky road for Rivers across his eight NBA seasons, and he's unlikely to ever receive the chance to be anything close to a leading option. But the right role is often preferable to the one with the most responsibility. Rivers has found a true home in Houston, one where he can play to his strengths and make a positive impact each night. At his best, Rivers can be a critical piece of a Finals contender. He could be just that across the next two months in Orlando.