Celts Winning Despite Rivers, Not Because of Him

Don’t get me wrong. I love the fact that my hometown Celtics are closing in on the franchise’s 17th championship. Better yet, they’ve doing it at the expense of the hated Lakers and probably the most despicable player in the game today, not to mention a coach tied with Red Auerbach for most championships.

Those are all good things.

The only problem is the campaign to give Boston coach Doc Rivers so much of the credit. His team is winning the Finals, the logic goes, so he must be a great coach. Let’s not forget, though, that Al Attles once coached the Golden State Warriors to a title and Rudy Tomjanovich coached the Houston Rockets to two titles, and I don’t see anyone recommending them for the Hall of Fame. For that matter, LA won its first Showtime championship under the guidance of Paul Westhead, who has since been ridiculed as an NBA coach. So before everyone crowns Rivers as Coach of the Century, let’s get a few things straight:

Rivers had little or nothing to do with what makes this team so powerful. 

When contrasting this Boston team against the recent entries that lost so many games and competed so fiercely in the Greg Oden lottery less than a year ago, coached by that same Doc Rivers, observers cite three primary reasons for the turnaround:

1. The arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce to form a modern-day Big Three (and, unfortunately, launch the most over-used phrase in recent memory when describing the top three players of almost every team in the NBA). Danny Ainge drafted and traded for the multitude of players used to bring these stars aboard, and Rivers’ only contribution was to coach his team to such consistently poor records that Boston got plenty of good draft picks.

2. The addition of assistant coach Tom Thibodeaux to correct the team’s most glaring deficiency under Rivers: A porous, pathetic defense against which rival players padded their stats. There’s plenty of credit to spread here, as Garnett brought a manic dedication to defense and hustle, and Pierce and Allen ramped up their defensive games to the point where their coverage of Kobe Bryant draws praise instead of snickers.

3. The determination of Pierce, Garnett and Allen to set aside their personal goals and glory in favor of doing whatever it takes to win a championship. Rivers might claim some minor credit here, at least for fostering a locker room that emphasized teamwork and sacrifice, but let’s face it: the Big Three arrived ready to do what it took, regardless of who was coach. If they hadn’t brought that mindset, Rivers wasn’t likely to have changed it any more than he was able to transform former Celtics like Mark Blount, Ricky Davis and Gerald Green into selfless players. In case anyone forgot, nobody ever accused those Rivers teams of selflessness.

Rather than exploit the deep talent on his bench, Rivers has squandered and crippled it. 

James Posey, Eddie House, PJ Brown, Leon Powe, Glen Davis and Sam Cassell would be prime contributors on any NBA team. But Rivers, after mining them for valuable contributions all season long, had almost all of them racking up more DNPs than points, rebounds or loose balls. Except for Posey and Brown, Boston’s bench players have only broken their sweat during warmups and a few brief appearances when someone was in foul trouble. Most recently, Rivers has been described as some sort of mastermind for inserting Leon Powe in Game 2 and Eddie House in Game 4.

There are two problems with this fuzzy logic:

1. If it made so much sense to play Powe and House (and it does, as each has demonstrated so dramatically), then why did Rivers bury them on the bench for three prior playoff series and most of the Finals so far? When Ray Allen was colder than Mount Rainier throughout the first three series, why no House? When the Celtics were being mauled on the boards by Atlanta’s young leapers, why no Powe? If Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo hadn’t gotten injured against Los Angeles, Powe and House would have stayed exactly where Rivers has long wanted them: firmly riveted to the Boston bench. So much for the coach’s so-called insight.

2. Even in Game 2, when Powe was rammed in 21 points as the Celtics exploded for a 24-point lead over the Lakers, Rivers held his minutes to 15. while the lead was still in the 20s and showing no sign of fading, Rivers took Powe out in favor of Garnett, who hadn’t played particularly well and had already racked up more minutes and needed rest more than anyone. Instead of weaving younger, fresher players into the lineup and keeping Boston’s game at high rev, Rivers kepts his starters out there as LA’s fresher players began to find it easier and easier to get open for jumpers or drive to the hoop. The lead shrunk all the way to two points before Pierce saved the day with some late-game heroics.

3. Through the first three rounds, Boston never went three nights without a game — and they were tough games, for the most part. The first two series went to tense seventh games, and the third went six. And through this entire stretch, even though his bench had provided critical defense, scoring and rebounding all season long, Rivers turned his back on it and rode his starters into the ground playing heavy minutes in a game every other night. This went on for more than three straight weeks. And people wonder why Boston looked so ragged in game after game.

The one aspect of the game Rivers controls, the offense, is one of the NBA’s worst. 

As much as I thirst for Boston victories, they can be painful to watch. Rivers’ offense resembles nothing so much as a pickup game between strangers. You know, those chaotic affairs where no one knows anyone else and everyone passes the ball without any idea of who can shoot jumpers and who needs to post up; centers wind up shooting from the perimeter while guards collide with each other in the post. Which is pretty much how Rivers’ offense works. Watch in most games and you’ll see Ray Allen forgotten on the far side of the court, well away from the ball or any perimeter scoring opportunities. Count how many times Garnett, the Celtics’ tallest player, takes 20-footers  jumpers from the top of the key rather than post up where he can dominate the paint and stay in position for offensive rebounds. It’s no accident Ray Allen hauled down nine rebounds in Thursday’s clutch game; he spends more time down low than Boston’s big men. Count how many times Pierce, the man through whom the offense should flow, touches the ball; if Larry Bird went without touching the ball for as many long stretches as Pierce does, his hallowed 80s teams wouldn’t have made the playoffs much less won them. Many nights end with Perkins and Rondo taking more shots than two of the Big Three; check out the box scores, at least from the games before they got injured, and you’ll see what I mean.

So the next time you hear someone talk about Rivers’ great coaching, remember that the only thing really working for Boston is at the defensive end, where Thibodeaux calls the shots. When they talk about Rivers guiding this year’s Celtics to a championship, remember that he’s the same coach who blew a playoff series his Orlando team was leading 3-1 and whose prior Celtics teams were league patsies.

These Celtics are on their way to a title despite Doc Rivers, not because of him. If Rivers had any conscience at all, he’d be giving half of his hefty pay check each week to Thibodeaux, without whom the Celtics probably wouldn’t have made it out of the first round.



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