BOSTON – Across these playoffs, Doc Rivers has let a different voice talk to these Boston Celtics, linking his team to the history here. The ghost of Red Auerbach has spoken to Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, his graveled old words on the '69 Celtics, spliced with yesterday's grainy black-and-white, meeting the living color of today.
"That '69 team, people talked about them not making it, about them getting old," Rivers said.
For all the times that Rivers used Red's and his own words to prey upon the pride of Celtics Hall of Fame stars past and present, there's something that Rivers himself has never raised this season: The end of the run together. From Red to Rivers, the Celtics had survived one more Game 7 – an 85-75 victory over Philadelphia – to advance to the Eastern Conference finals to meet the Miami Heat.
And for all the uncertainty awaiting the Celtics on Saturday night – Allen missing shots, and Pierce fouling out, and these 76ers refusing to relent – Rivers has resisted the temptation of reaching for the easiest, most obvious call of arms: The inevitable end of the Big Three, the combusting of the greatest, most gratifying years the coach and his Hall of Fame core have spent in the sport.
"I won't do it," Rivers told Yahoo! Sports late Saturday night, outside his office at the Garden. "When you start thinking about breaking something up, retiring, then you're thinking about the end and not the present. And I think that this team needs to be in the now, with each other. We don't know what will happen next year, but I just think that it's important that this team thinks about trying to win now – not because this may be it.
"Because when you start thinking that way, you let go of the rope."
They're holding onto everything for dear life now, gasping for breath as they climb onto the charter Sunday and fly to South Florida for Game 1. These Celtics are reaching for a reserve that no one is sure still exists, a final stand for a magnificent five-year playoff run that includes an NBA championship, an NBA Finals and now a third trip to the conference championship series. With the way Boston is struggling to score and a lean bench, it's hard to imagine the Celtics expending the energy it takes to contain LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and still beat Miami four times.
These conference finals starting on Monday night shouldn't be much of a series. Garnett is exhausted, and he'll have to do much more on the defensive end. Pierce's shot-making has come and gone, and now he'll have to take his turn pursuing James and Wade for hours and hours in this series. Allen needs ankle surgery, has completely lost the lift on shots, and the days of Wade relegated to chasing him through endless mazes of screens have ended.
Rivers watched Allen shaking his foot on Saturday night, which had been a telltale sign that the coach needed to get him out of the game.
"Hey, are you all right?" Rivers yelled to him.
"I'm all right," Allen responded, "after we win the game."
Rivers will have to coach the series of his life for the Celtics to hang with the Heat, but once again he managed the strong-willed psyche of Rajon Rondo magnificently to close out the series. Rondo had played his worst playoff game as a pro in Game 6, and yet there he was the next morning, showing up early at Rivers' office, sitting down and watching tape with him. He sputtered in Game 7 again, struggling to make shots and simple passes, and impose his genius on the game.
Rivers kept riding him after his turnovers, telling him to stop acting mad at everyone and get back into the game.
"Coach," he said, "I'm not mad at anyone. I'm mad at myself."
Rivers has always made the Celtics live by Chuck Daly's old creed of, "Get past mad." Rivers told him that it didn't matter that he was angry with himself, because, "You're still mad."
This is how it goes with Rondo, around and around, yet Rivers kept working on ways to keep him engaged. As soon as Rondo walked toward the huddle for fourth-quarter timeouts, Rivers met him far from the bench, and leaned into his ear to tell him the play call that the coach planned to diagram in the timeout. Only, Rivers wanted Rondo to do it himself. Go to the huddle, grab the clipboard and draw it up for teammates.
"So when I get into the timeout, they've already seen it once," Rivers said. "That's how good he is: He can draw it up, just like I can draw it up."
As Rondo said, "I take pride in doing Doc's system. Sometimes, I think I know it better than him."
In the end, Rondo rose in Game 7's moment of truth once Pierce fouled out inside the final five minutes. Rondo delivered one of his vintage closeouts: Nine straight points to expand a three-point lead to double figures, a furious finish that inspired an 18 point, 10 rebound and 10 assist box score out of the ashes.
Rondo blamed himself for Pierce fouling out, saying the burden of responsibility rested with him because of how poorly he had protected the ball, how poorly he had run the team. In Miami, they Celtics will need Rondo to be not merely good, but spectacular. He never forgets the way that Wade clobbered him in the playoffs a season ago, dislocated his elbow, ultimately ending his season.
Someday soon, the Celtics will rebuild themselves around Rondo, but the point guard's with his coach on this one: He wants to hear nothing of it. If Garnett and Allen are free agents, so be it. Rondo's inspiration doesn't come on the thought of endings, grumbling, "It had nothing to do with the older guys. We didn't want it to end."
Rivers has grown so fond of this team, this era, and he was downright beaming late Saturday night. Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox had been in the locker room the past two days, reminders of the players who never made it into the season. "You look at the talent of our team from last year to this year, it's not even in the same ballpark," Rivers said. "But I love this team. They fight for each other. It's just so nice to coach with no drama.
"We're mentally tough. If Miami beats us, they'll beat us by outplaying us. But I don't think we're going to run out of gas."
Whatever happens, the Celtics get one more chance at chasing history, a last stand of sorts. Doc Rivers promises that he'll never bring that up. After all, why would he ever need to say it? He waved his hand outside his office late Saturday, and confessed: "That talk is out here, in the air, and everybody else is bringing it up to our guys. We don't need to talk about it in here."
The conversation had turned to the inevitable end of this Celtics era, this run with Garnett and Pierce and Allen that's made Rivers in many ways a champion, forever part of Celtics lore. In Doc Rivers' most private, most personal moments, does he find himself thinking about what happens when this is over, when the privilege and joy of coaching them is a mere memory?
"There are so many moments like that," Rivers would tell Yahoo! Sports. "But even when I start going down that road with myself, I cut it off, because this starts to happen … "
His eyes grew glassy now, and his words stopped short. Somewhere between the euphoria of winning one more Game 7 for the Boston Celtics, between the sobering reality of those Miami Heat awaiting in the conference finals, Doc Rivers was still searching to keep himself in the best basketball place a coach and his team can ever know: The present.
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