Doc Rivers' care key to Celtics' success
Ask Doc Rivers about an injury to one of his players — it really doesn’t matter who — and he has a standard reply.
“I know it sounds corny,” the Celtics coach is fond of saying. “But my nickname is Doc. I’m not a real doctor.”
But at what turned out to be the most critical time of the season for the Celtics, Rivers was just what the doctor ordered. His veteran team was limping along, literally, with Kevin Garnett hobbled by a knee that he was still rehabbing from surgery; and with Paul Pierce suffering through a series of foot, knee and thumb injuries.
Instead of continuing to try to win games and worrying about finishing the regular season strong, Rivers made a bold decision. He opted to scale back the minutes for Garnett and Pierce and use the remaining 20-odd games to get healthy and ready for the postseason.
Rivers was carrying out the old Chuck Daly approach to the regular season. “Just land the plane,” was how the late Hall of Fame Pistons coach used to put it. “Just get to the playoffs in one piece.”
Rivers’ approach also harkened back to the days when he played for the Clippers and Larry Brown came into practice one day and announced, “I’m changing the whole offense.” Rivers thought Brown was crazy, but he turned out to be right, Rivers recalled. And Rivers learned an important lesson: If you believe in something that will help your team, as rash as it might seem, do it.
“That stretch of the last month we formed a game plan, and I thought it was the right plan,” Rivers said. “Obviously it didn't look right because we were losing games, but guys were resting and conditioning, and I thought that was the only chance we had. Because the one thing I did learn through the injuries was we were not good enough injured. But we had a chance if we were healthy. There were no guarantees, but we had a chance healthy. So my gamble was, let's take health. So we lost some games, but we got healthy.”
Rivers looks like a genius now. The Celtics finished with the fourth seed in the East, going 6-8 down the stretch. But they arrived in the playoffs healthy, with the Big Three ready to make another title run. And once they got there, they had an edge over Cleveland and Orlando, with veteran players who know what it takes to win. So Rivers’ gamble paid off.
In the Finals, he’s continued to have a hot hand. In the Celtics’ Game 4 win that tied the series, he rode his bench in the decisive fourth quarter, probably longer than normal. He also allowed his hothead reserves — they’re known as “the emotional group” — Glen “Big Baby” Davis, Nate Robinson and Rasheed Wallace to go a little bit overboard as Robinson and Wallace picked up technical fouls. But he stayed with them because they were carrying the team to the most important win of the season.
“In that case,” Rivers said, “you go with your gut.”
Heading into Sunday’s Game 5, Rivers will continue to trust his instincts. With two more wins, he’ll have his second title in two tries, which should be good enough to get the former Hawks playmaker a ticket into the Hall of Fame as a coach.
He’s overshadowed in this series by Phil Jackson, who is going for his 11th title and is competing in his 13th Finals in the last 20 years. But he’s been in the business now long enough to be regarded as one of the game’s top coaches.
“I’m going to try and downplay Doc; I mean, that’s my job,” Jackson said jokingly when asked about his counterpart. “But I’ll tell you what he's done well: He's done well with matchups. He's done well in attacking some of our weaker guys out there on the floor in situations that's given them an advantage. I thought he's used his bench exceptionally well.
“As far as the other stuff, the players that he has on the team, they're all experienced players,” Jackson continued. “During the regular season they knew what was important about the year. The year was important about coming in the playoffs and playing … the Garnetts and the Pierces and the Allens and the Wallaces, they've been through these things, they know a little bit about what's important.
“Sometimes those last 15, 20 games in the regular season can get to be arduous and you can beat a dead horse into a situation you don't want to get into, and I think Doc rode his team the right way. It's the second season that's important in this game, and they've come in with a good amount of energy and the right team play here.”
It’s just what Doc Rivers ordered, even if he’s not a real doctor