SAN ANTONIO – When Doc Rivers walked into the locker room, the scene stopped him. Chris Paul called on the Clippers to congratulate the young guard responsible for saving the season and present him the game ball. Everyone clapped. Everyone let out a long, loud cheer for Austin Rivers.
"For a moment, for a half second maybe, I became a dad in there," Doc Rivers told Yahoo Sports later on Sunday at the AT&T Center. The tears welled in his eyes, but he quickly wiped them away and stiffened in the concrete corridor.
To trade for his son, Rivers had to make a case on the move's merits to a dubious basketball community. He's had to live with the criticism. They've had to live with it together. They had Sunday together, too.
Austin Rivers had his finest moment in the NBA on Sunday, scoring 16 points, delivering defense, deflections and a 114-105 victory over the San Antonio Spurs to bring this best-of-seven series back to Staples Center at 2-2. He made deft drives to the basket and fearless finishes to stun the Spurs.
For nine years, Doc Rivers coached and lived in Boston. For most of that time, his wife and children stayed in Orlando. Austin completed middle school and high school, spent a year at Duke and moved onto the NBA. Father and son were separated a long time, often coming and going in moments Doc had flown down and stolen an off-night for a high school game or an ACC game on Tobacco Road.
"Listen, we haven't been together a lot," Rivers told Yahoo Sports. "In a lot of ways, I am his coach."
More coach than father, he's trying to say. It's an honest admission, and it comes tinged with a touch of sadness. Nevertheless, Austin Rivers has had to find his own way with these Clippers, earn his own respect. This was a beginning on Sunday, nothing more, nothing less.
As much as anything, it's been Chris Paul and Blake Griffin fueling him with belief. In the losing locker room of Game 3, Griffin told Austin Rivers that he could make a difference, that he needed to use his size and speed to go downhill, to assail the rim. Austin heard him, and heeded him.
"I need you," Paul told Austin on Sunday in the huddles, and, yes, Austin finally found a way to impact this Clippers season. The NBA's a survival of the fittest, and that's the kind of performance that Austin will need to deliver again and again to have staying power. Everyone wanted to probe for the "Happy Days" moment between coach and player on Sunday, between father and son.
Austin dismissed all that. "Nah, man, we didn't win a championship."
Mostly, Austin wants to talk about his responsibility to his teammates – which is where a young player has to start in the NBA, especially this one. After Game 4, the first question asked of Austin had been about giving his father "an early Christmas present." Everything's within the context of Doc, and that's how it'll be until the son can prove that he's a consistently good player, that he belongs in these moments for a championship contender.
Wisely, there was no "I told you so," and no-one-believed-in-me defiance after Game 4. This was an immense performance at the crossroads of the Clippers' season, but it was only one. Austin Rivers wants to do it again. That's how the criticism will stop. Play well again, and again.
"This is something I know I can do," he said.
At 22 years old, it's possible he can still be right about himself. Sometimes, people give up on players too soon. Out of Duke, Rivers hadn't been ready to live up to the promise of the 10th overall pick in the NBA draft – and maybe he'll never be that. For the Clippers this season, for the GM and coach, Doc River is under intense scrutiny. Rivers traded his 2014 first-round pick, Reggie Bullock, for his son in January.
If the construction of the Clippers' bench is considered a blight on Rivers' tenure as GM, unloading assets for his son promised to bring a new level of scorn and mockery. And it did. Rivers is a hard target as a coach – because he's elite – but perhaps an easier one as top executive. As the core of these Clippers go, former executive Neil Olshey is responsible for assembling Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan. Olshey brought in the Clippers' best reserve, Jamal Crawford, too, and drafted Eric Bledsoe, the asset who delivered them J.J. Redick and the departed Jared Dudley.
"There's a whole bench, but Austin's always the piñata," Doc Rivers told Yahoo Sports. "The thing I don't like is that guys use that name to get hits. It's so cheap. And I hate that. All the way back, that always pissed me off. Guys writing about him just because it's going to get hits. For that, I feel for him. It makes me think sometimes I wish I wasn't the dad in this case.
"He's been a target his whole life."
San Antonio holds a different meaning to the Rivers family, and that probably had something to do with the tears welling within Doc Rivers' eyes in a private moment on Sunday. Seventeen years ago, the Rivers' house was burned to the ground here. Arson was always suspected. The family was out of town, but they lost everything, including their dog. It scarred them all, and became an immense part of the reason Chris Rivers and her children never joined Doc in Boston. They had found a home they loved in Orlando, and that was hard to let go after the tumult of losing the San Antonio home.
So Doc and Austin reunited all these years later in Los Angeles. The kid validated his old man's faith on Sunday, but mostly he delivered belief to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin that they could count on him with the Spurs threatening to push the Clippers to the brink of elimination.
Doc brought Austin to the Clippers, gave him the job and he's caught hell for it. Even so, this was how it was supposed to be on Sunday: The franchise star gathered the team in the winning locker room, and passed the game ball to Austin Rivers. He had earned it – saved the season, perhaps – and that's what had allowed Doc to escape, let him be a father for those fleeting few seconds, let him see his son's smile and listen to the roar of the room.
Outside the locker room, there had been a tear in the old man's eye, but, yes, he wiped it away and moved on. This was a start on Sunday. That's all. "It was pretty cool," Doc Rivers said, and then he was gone, off to start thinking about Game 5, when staying power for a young guard will demand that performance again and again.