BOSTON – With a month left in the regular season, Doc Rivers gathered Paul Pierce(notes), Kevin Garnett(notes) and Ray Allen(notes) in his office to tell them how they would be champions again. They were so far away, so uncertain the possibility remained plausible. The longer the season had gone with worn legs, beat-up bodies and bad losses, the clearer the truth had become for Rivers. They would stop angling for playoff seeding and home court, stop treating the regular season with urgency.
"Listen, we're going to practice harder, you're going to play less and there's going to be a minute restriction," Rivers told them. Garnett's and Pierce's faces grew long, and Rivers punctuated his declaration with the obvious: "And I know you're not going to like this, but the only way you're going to win is healthy."
Two and a half months later, his tie undone and his plan unfolded, Rivers laughed that throaty laugh and sighed: "I had seen unhealthy, and we were .500 unhealthy …
"… We only had one shot at this."
All around Rivers, they reached out to congratulate him, shake his hand and soon he was on the move in the Garden. He was walking and talking, the friendliest, most engaging man in the building. The Celtics had destroyed the Orlando Magic 96-84 in Game 6, and it was old times in old-town Boston: Back to the NBA Finals, back to hang an 18th championship banner. Against all odds, this was a most improbable playoff run, born out of a coach's belief that this roster was still constructed for springtime success.
"I thought it was the right plan, but it didn't look right because we were losing," Rivers said. "But guys were resting and conditioning, and I thought that was the only chance we had."
So, Rivers would watch Garnett seethe on the bench and wonder whether they would ever get through this and into the clear. "Kevin doesn't have a shut-down button," Rivers said. They took him out of games, lost leads and Garnett would deliver that icy glare that demanded Rivers return him to the floor. It felt like the season was slipping away in March and April, but it turned out that it was just getting started.
As Garnett and Pierce glared into space, Rivers would hear his assistant Tom Thibodeau and trainer Ed Lacerte bark out the minutes they had played, and Rivers refused to let his thirtysomething stars exhaust their prescribed limits. As a former player with a winning pedigree, Rivers combines the best of X's-and-O's acumen with a true understanding of the player's plight. He's publicly supportive and privately harsh. He never gets personal with his criticism and never embarrasses them. He treats them with respect, but never reverence.
Two years ago, Rivers' job was to temper the wild expectations of bringing together the Big Three. This time, it was to get these Celtics to believe again. As the Celtics lulled midway through the season, this was the hardest job of all.
Around the coach, panic sometimes set in. Assistant coaches barked that Rivers needed to be tougher on the players, that they had too many bad habits that would come back to haunt them. The players themselves would make mistakes on the floor, miss assignments on defense, get destroyed on the boards and retreat to the locker room angry, lost and disillusioned. The players cried for change, but Rivers never gave into any of it.
"When things went bad, we kind of fight a little bit," Allen said. " 'We need to do this. … We need to do that,' " Allen said.
Every time, Rivers would march into the locker room and insist, "We're not changing anything." Over and over, Rivers would tell them they were the best defensive team in the NBA. He would tell them they still had the core of the '08 champions, and no one had ever beaten them when the starting five had been together. They watched the Cleveland Cavaliers make dramatic change to their lineup and fail. They watched Orlando make the move for Vince Carter(notes) and watched him completely crumble under the burden of expectations in the conference finals.
"But the one constant Boston had as a contender was that we had the same starting five," Pierce said.
Rivers always talked about it, always told them, "I like this team guys." They loved him for it, too. Deep down, they never lost sight of the fact Rivers always fought for them, that he never stopped selling the locker room on the belief that when together, when whole, they were still champions.
"He stuck to the script the whole time," Allen said. "There may have been a point when we were wavering, but … he believed in us."
Rivers gets the most out of his stars, and that's how you compete for championships. It's the short-sighted coaches grinding teams through the regular season that get the most out of role players, but often alienate the stars. And you win with the stars. This hasn't been the easiest locker room to navigate, but Rivers had such a spectacular feel for when to get involved and when to let teammates work things out, when to push in practice and when to back away. Through Garnett's knee injury that derailed the '09 season, to his and Pierce's problems this season, they longed for a chance to get everyone together, get everyone right and be champions again.
As the clock moved toward midnight, Doc Rivers walked back to the arena floor, posed for pictures and told a familiar young face to work on his game this summer. Rivers kept moving, kept pushing toward that rarified place in the Celtics' rich history for those winning multiple championships. Above him, the 17 championship banners hung and the echoes of "Beat L.A. … Beat L.A." still reverberated from the final moments of their victory.
"There were no guarantees," Doc Rivers would say. "There was no guarantee that plan would get us back, but it was the only chance we had."
The core of these Celtics was skeptical, but the gift of Rivers is forever to see the longer view, and now it dangled above him in the quiet of an empty Garden. Seventeen titles, and Doc Rivers was determined to discover a way to get one more out of this Celtics core, out of his stay on the job, before time obliterated the opportunity.
"We're going back!" a man yelled from the stands. "We're going to do it again." Doc Rivers smiled, held up his hand and clenched his fist in agreement. Yes, they were, and it still seemed to be sinking into the mind of the man who gave these Celtics an unpopular plan for an improbable run.
"Here we are," Rivers said late Friday. Against all odds, here these Celtics go again to the NBA Finals.
- Doc Rivers