By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
BOSTON -- Boston Celtics Coach Doc Rivers knows that between last season and this season he didn't suddenly qualify for Mensa, nor did the spirit of Red Auerbach come back to possess his body. The man responsible for leading the Celtics to a franchise best-tying 20 wins in their first 22 games is the same one who guided the team through a franchise-record 18-game losing streak last season.
Rivers said he doesn't get too caught up in whether perceptions of his coaching acumen have changed with the additions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. "You keep it all in perspective," Rivers said last week. "I watch the same amount of film as last year. I worry as much as last year. You just have different worries."
Paul Pierce, Garnett and Allen have all talked about how they don't want to squander this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play together, but Rivers feels the same way about leading the heralded but ringless all-star trio. "A lot of us have been at this a long time and want to do something special," said Rivers, who never won a title during his 13-year playing career despite coming close with the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks. "You get another shot, you try to make the best of it."
The Celtics have the league's best record, lead the league in field goal percentage defense and point differential (all but three of their victories have been decided by double-digits). Rivers won't get ahead of himself. "We've won absolutely zero. We've won nothing," he said. "We are not good enough to win a world championship today. If we keep improving, maybe we have a chance."
The early success hasn't been without adversity, though. Two days after the Celtics' season-opening win against the Washington Wizards, Rivers's father, Grady Alexander Rivers, a retired police officer, died at age 76. Rivers missed one game to mourn after his mother, Betty, urged him to go back to work.
"That's been tough," Rivers said. "Anyone who has lost a parent knows that it doesn't go away. And you probably don't want it to go away. You have sad moments. Any day, any moment -- it can happen during a game. I embrace that now. But I needed to work. I needed to get back."
This time last season, fans at TD Banknorth Garden were chanting, "Fire Doc" because they felt he wasn't getting enough out of a poorly assembled team that featured Pierce and a bunch of young kids who probably should've been studying for final exams in college. Now that he has a ready-made contender that features veterans Pierce, Garnett and Allen, Rivers is merely being asked not to blow it.
"Give me the opportunity," Rivers said when asked about the drastic shift in outlook. "Who doesn't want an opportunity?"
For Rivers, this opportunity feels somewhat overdue. His coaching career began with promise with the Orlando Magic, as he won coach of year honors in 2000 after leading a band of overachieving misfits to 41 wins. The following summer, the Magic signed Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, but Rivers's visions of fielding a "matchup nightmare," a three-guard offense that included Mike Miller, never came to fruition. "Grant got hurt. And bam, it was over," Rivers said.
Rivers led the Magic to the playoffs three times, but could never get out of the first round and eventually was fired after his relationship with McGrady strained and the team started 1-10 in 2003-04.
Celtics Executive Director of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge made Rivers his first coaching hire before the next season. In his first year at the helm, Rivers had a mostly veteran squad, with Pierce, Antoine Walker and Gary Payton. But after leading Boston to the Atlantic Division title in 2005, Ainge went into rebuilding mode and the average age of the roster decreased in direct correlation with the number of wins.
Rivers won't deny that the losing was intolerable, not to mention the demands of trying to develop young players, many with a limited knowledge of the game. "We spent half our practices last year on footwork, on how to set a pick, how to roll, when to roll," Rivers said, shaking his head. "It's tough when you have to look long term, when the fans look short term in you. But you have to do what's good for the franchise. You take the hit. You got to stand in there and take it."
Ainge heard the speculation about Rivers's future last season, but never wavered in his support of his coach. "I'm a big fan of Doc," Ainge said. "The guys listened to him, even in tough circumstances. That just tells you that if you can improve the circumstances, you have a leader."
Ainge went out of his way to defend Rivers on his radio program and in newspaper interviews and gave him a contract extension last April while the team was in the midst of a 24-win season. The move was considered dubious at the time, given how the Celtics had the worst record in the woebegone Eastern Conference and appeared to be regressing, having won only 33 and 45 games, respectively, in the two previous seasons.
"I certainly didn't see Doc as the reason the team wasn't playing up the fans' expectations," Ainge said. "I felt Doc never really had a chance to win in Boston and everything I saw on a day-to-day basis -- how much time he put in and how he coaches the guys -- I thought he deserved a chance to coach a better team."
Hill said that even if he had been healthy, those Magic teams would not have been nearly as good as these Celtics -- and not only because of the talent on the roster. "Doc is more experienced as a coach. I just think he's learned a lot," Hill said. "He's talked to me. He said he's grown as a coach. He's had some ups and downs. He's at a point right now to have those kind of players."
When Garnett joined the Celtics in August after 12 seasons in Minnesota, he had dinner with Pierce and Allen. Pierce told them that they would love playing for Rivers. Coming from Pierce, those words of praise spoke volumes given his initially frosty relationship with Rivers. "When he first got here, we didn't see eye to eye a lot, had our little bumps and bruises," Pierce said. "But over the years, he's been a good coach for me and helped me mature into the player I am today."
Garnett has been around Rivers for only a few months, but has enjoyed how Rivers balances being upfront and demanding with being compassionate. He also marvels at his ability to keep the team on edge at both ends of the floor. "Doc is probably, other than Flip [Saunders], one of the best coaches I've ever been a part of," Garnett said. "I sensed that he recognizes the hunger in us. As much as he wants it, we want it."